Brazilian prosecutors have charged a son of President Jair Bolsonaro with corruption, a development that threatens to ensnare the rightwing leader in scandal following a period of political calm.
Investigators in Rio de Janeiro late on Tuesday charged Flávio Bolsonaro, a senator, with embezzlement, money laundering and criminal association, the culmination of an investigation that began almost two years ago.
The authorities alleged that Flávio Bolsonaro ran a “rachadinha” scheme along with several associates while a Rio state lawmaker before becoming a senator.
Such schemes, a feature of Brazilian politics, typically involve elected politicians using state funds to take on a large number of employees, who then funnel back their salaries to their boss.
Investigators believe that hundreds of thousands of dollars was funnelled back to Flávio Bolsonaro and then laundered through a variety of fronts, including a chocolate shop, with the help of an associate, Fabrício Queiroz, who was also charged.
Flávio Bolsonaro denied the allegations. “It was expected, but it will not be sustained because they lack any evidence. It’s nothing but a badly orchestrated and evil tale,” he said in a statement.
A state court in Rio must decide whether to accept the charges before the case can proceed. But the development will nonetheless prove an embarrassment to his father, who only weeks ago claimed he had put an end to corruption in Brazil.
“The Flavio case demonstrates that corruption has not ended in Brazil,” said Carlos Melo, a professor of political science at the Insper business school. “[Jair] Bolsonaro’s rhetoric is like that of any politician. The idea that he would end corruption is an electoral fallacy. It’s not supported in reality.”
Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain, was elected president in 2018 by tapping into popular anger about rampant political corruption laid bare in the landmark Lava Jato — or Car Wash — graft probe.
Since then, however, he has backed away from anti-corruption efforts and instead opted to cut deals with the political establishment in Congress.
These agreements with the so-called Centrão in effect staved off any risk that Mr Bolsonaro could be impeached and led to the first period of political stability of his tenure.
“Now everyone in Brasília has an interest in quietly sweeping the [corruption] issue under the rug. And that’s exactly what they’re doing,” said Eduardo Mello, a professor of politics at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.
Prof Mello highlighted that corruption had fallen off the political radar in recent months. Although Brazil has been badly hit by the coronavirus crisis, the president is enjoying high approval ratings after doling out Covid-19 cash relief to millions of the county’s poorest citizens.
“Bolsonaro no longer needs to pretend to care about corruption because this is no longer a major issue. He’s in a good position to guarantee himself a place in the runoff in the election in two years. He just needs to appear less corrupt than his opponent,” Prof Mello said.
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice in São Paulo