The lead prosecutor in Brazil’s long-running Lava Jato corruption probe on Tuesday quit the investigation after coming under increasing attack from officials close to the Jair Bolsonaro administration.
The departure of Deltan Dallagnol from the anti-corruption task force in the southern city of Curitiba raises fresh questions about the future of the probe, which since 2014 has implicated scores of prominent Brazilian businesspeople and politicians in a massive graft scheme.
Named after a car wash used to launder money in Brasília, the investigation uncovered a vast contracts-for-kickbacks network involving oil group Petrobras, a group of construction companies and scores of prominent politicians. The resulting prosecutions were considered a watershed moment for Brazil, where the ruling elite had long enjoyed impunity for their excesses.
In recent weeks, however, the investigation has come under fire from Augusto Aras, Brazil’s attorney-general, who criticised investigators for their alleged secrecy, operational excesses and mass collection of data on suspects.
Appointed by Mr Bolsonaro last year, Mr Aras said he wanted to impose a “course correction” on the investigation. He is expected to shortly decide on whether to renew the mandate of the Lava Jato task force in Curitiba, which spearheaded much of the corruption crackdown.
The moves from Mr Aras — combined with growing opposition from members of Congress — prompted investigators to admit recently they believed the probe was reaching an end.
“Today, there is a very strong alignment of political forces against the Lava Jato operation. Much more than [just] an operation, the Brazilian effort against corruption itself is at risk,” Mr Dallagnol, the probe’s co-ordinator, told the Financial Times last month.
In a statement, Mr Dallagnol’s office said he was stepping down after six years to “dedicate himself to health issues in his family”. He will be replaced by Alessandro José Fernandes de Oliveira, a state attorney from Paraná.
The decision by Mr Dallagnol — a controversial figure who had been accused of targeting leftwing politicians in the investigation — is likely to be viewed as attempt to protect the future of the overall investigation.
“The fight against corruption should not be embodied in a single person. That would be a big mistake. I see the renewal of prosecutors as a way to ensure institutional balance remains above personal interests,” said Luiz Scarpino, a lawyer and author of a book on Lava Jato.
“Dallagnol’s public image was forged in combat against corruption, which could be a good campaign slogan for him. Perhaps politics will be a better fit.”
Mr Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 on pledges to root out the corruption that had been exposed by the Lava Jato investigation in the years prior.
Amid mounting investigations into an alleged graft scheme run by his son Flavio, however, Brazil’s president has backed away from that rhetoric.
In recent weeks, he has also faced questions over reports of payments to his wife, Michelle, from a former aide with alleged links to Rio de Janeiro’s notorious militia gangs.
When a reporter asked about the payments, the former army captain responded: “I’d like to smash your mouth in.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice