Federal prosecutors privately agreed that there is “no doubt” Flávio Bolsonaro engaged in corruption as a state representative, but little has been done.
Grave concerns that a major corruption scandal involving Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s son, federal Sen. Flávio Bolsonaro, might be shielded from serious investigative scrutiny by Bolsonaro’s powerful Justice Minister Sergio Moro were expressed in secret chats involving Moro’s longtime ally, Deltan Dallagnol, the chief prosecutor of the anti-corruption Car Wash investigation. Moro himself is currently battling his own corruption scandal as a result of The Intercept’s series of ongoing exposés beginning on June 9, based on a massive archive of secret chats, documents, and other materials involving the then-judge and the Car Wash prosecutors.
The specific scandal involving Bolsonaro’s son erupted almost as soon as his father was elected president, a victory driven in large part by an anti-corruption platform. As The Intercept has extensively reported, a government agency responsible for detecting unusual movements of money on the part of politicians found more than $1.5 million reals in transfers and deposits by Flávio Bolsonaro’s longtime driver, Fabricio Queiroz, most of which ended up in Flávio’s account and at least one of which ended up in the account of Jair Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle. The scandal became even more serious when Queiroz’s substantial connections to the country’s most violent and dangerous paramilitary gangs were revealed, and even worse, when it was revealed that Flávio himself employed in his cabinet while he was a state representative both the mother and wife of one of Rio de Janeiro’s most wanted paramilitary leaders.
That meant that the cloud of scandal around Jair Bolsonaro’s son, a newly elected senator, was not just about allegations of “mere” stealing of public funds. They suggested something much darker: deep links between the Bolsonaro family and the organized crime rings that rule and terrorize much of Brazil (and which Sergio Moro was purportedly appointed to combat).
In the new secret chats reported by The Intercept, federal prosecutors, while talking to one another after Bolsonaro’s victory, were emphatic that these unexplained deposits by Flávio’s driver perfectly match other corruption schemes they prosecuted in which political officials hire “phantom employees” who do no work, but collect their salary and then pay back the vast bulk of that money to the political official for his own personal enrichment.
Despite how clear-cut these prosecutors believe Flávio’s corruption to be, they expressed in these newly published chats deep worry that, while the investigation of the money movements is in the hands of local investigators, the broader and more serious allegations against Flávio might not be investigated because Moro is concerned about angering Jair Bolsonaro. This is considered likely not only because the corruption case has the president’s son as its prime target, but also because it already involves his own wife and could — given his longtime close friendship with Queiroz — end up implicating the president himself.
Even more stunning in these chats is that Moro’s most loyal defender and ally over the last five years, Dallagnol, himself expressed concerns that Moro would refuse to pursue an investigation of Flávio out of fear that it would jeopardize Moro’s own chance to be named to the Supreme Court. In May, Bolsonaro surprised the nation when he admitted that he had promised Moro — who, as a judge, was responsible for removing Bolsonaro’s primary adversary, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, by finding him guilty on corruption charges — not only the justice minister position, but also the next vacancy on the Supreme Court, a lifetime appointment.
To this day, consistent with Dallagnol’s predictions, there is no evidence that Moro — who at the time of these private chats had already left his position as judge and accepted Bolsonaro’s offer to take over the Ministry of Justice — has taken any measures to investigate the scheme of “phantom employees” that Flávio is accused of maintaining, nor, more importantly, Flávio’s connections with powerful militias in Rio de Janeiro.
The corruption scandal involving Flávio, which had been dominating the headlines, had virtually disappeared from media coverage in recent months due to apparent inaction. The investigation regarding the “unusual movement” of funds is now in the hands of the local Rio de Janeiro prosecutor, and appears to have entered a much slower-than-expected pace for a case of this seriousness. Moro, meanwhile, has given no indication of investigating the federal ramifications of the case, such as Queiroz’s alleged loan to first lady Michelle Bolsonaro or his ties to militias.
On the few occasions Moro answered questions from the media about the senator-son of the president, he has repeated that “there is nothing conclusive about the Queiroz case” and that the government does not intend to interfere with the work of the prosecutors. The case returned to the news only this week when, on Monday, July 15, Supreme Court President Dias Toffoli responded to Flávio Bolsonaro’s request to suspend investigations into his personal finances and those of his associates; the judge accepted the request by ruling as improper investigations initiated without judicial approval involving the use of financial information from the agency that monitors politicians’ financial transactions: the agency whose reporting of suspicious deposits from Queiroz triggered the Flávio scandal in the first place.
On December 8, 2018 — just five weeks after Bolsonaro’s victory but three weeks before he was inaugurated — Dallagnol initiated the discussion of these concerns regarding Moro with a message posted in a Telegram chat group composed of other Car Wash prosecutors. Dallagnol noted an article from the news outlet UOL that described an unexplained deposit by Flávio’s driver, Queiroz, of $24,000 reals ($6,500) into an account in the name of Michelle Bolsonaro.
As the article described, the “transaction was identified as ‘atypical’ by” the agency charged with monitoring money movements. Queiroz, Flávio’s longtime driver and a close Bolsonaro family friend, “moved R $1.2 million (US $380,000) between January, 2016 and January, 2017.” The UOL article noted that “the agency’s report does not itself prove improprieties but indicates amounts of money being moved that are incompatible with the income and economic activities of the ex-aide.”
This news caused Dallagnol to ask what his colleagues on the Car Wash anti-corruption task force thought about the case and Moro’s reaction to it as Bolsonaro’s new justice minster. One prosecutor, Jerusa Viecili, already a critic in prior chat groups of Moro’s closeness with the Bolsonaro government, responded: “I’m saying nothing . . . just watching ”.
The Intercept’s reporting revealed in June that many Car Wash prosecutors, in their secret chats, were indignant that Moro, after insisting for five years to critics that the Car Wash investigations and convictions were completely apolitical and free of ideology, had joined Bolsonaro’s far-right government as a political official, with many complaining that his doing so would forever put into doubt the legitimacy, credibility, and apolitical legacy of their anti-corruption work.
For years, critics of the Car Wash investigation accused prosecutors and Moro of being right-wing operatives abusing the power of law and the cover of an anti-corruption crusade to advance a nakedly political agenda, one designed to overwhelmingly target the left, especially the Workers’ Party that had dominated Brazilian politics for two decades, while neglecting or even ignoring serious corruption by the right.
The investigators’ insistence that they were devoid of political motives was seriously undermined, argued the prosecutors, by the appearance of Moro joining a right-wing government that was elected only once the Car Wash prosecutors and Moro rendered Bolsonaro’s primary center-left adversary ineligible to run. Their credibility has been damaged further by The Intercept’s exposés showing that prosecutors explicitly discussed having as one of their motives preventing a return of the Workers’ Party to power: exactly that which they and Moro spent years denying.
Dallagnol expressed serious concerns about how the justice minister was conducting the investigation into Flávio’s corruption allegations, suggesting that the ex-judge could end up being lenient with Flávio due to limits imposed on him by Jair Bolsonaro or by the self-interested desire of Moro to avoid putting at risk his nomination to the Supreme Court by angering Bolsonaro with a robust investigation into his son. Invoking a Brazilian poem used to expressed uncertainty about whether any consequences would follow from certain actions, Dallagnol wrote about Flávio’s actions: “It’s obvious what happened…. And now what, Jose?”
In the December 8 chat, Dallagnol continued: “In any case, the president will not split from his son. And what if all this happens before the vacancy on the Supreme Court appears?” About Jair Bolsonaro’s possible retaliation against Moro’s crown jewel — his anti-corruption bill — Dallagnol concluded, “Now, how much will he support the Moro Anti-Corruption agenda if his son ends up feeling Moro’s investigation on his skin?”
Requests for comment from the Car Wash prosecutorial task force and the prosecutors cited in this article were not answered as of the time of publication. The article will be updated to include any responses.
Moro’s predicament — how to investigate a corruption case involving the son of the president who named him to his position or, even more delicate, how to investigate corruption that could involve the president himself and his wife — caused Dallagnol himself to consider avoiding all interviews about corruption debates.
On the same day that his group discussed Moro’s posture in the Queiroz and Flávio case, Dallagnol used a private chat to discuss the same topic with another Car Wash prosecutor, Roberson Pozzobon. In that conversation, Dallagnol expressed deep concerns about granting media interviews about corruption issues given the possibility that questions about Flávio Bolsonaro might be raised.
In stark contrast to his usual eagerness to speak publicly about other cases of corruption — Dellagnol had famously used the media far more aggressively than is typical for prosecutors — he suggested that he was now reluctant to issue a more severe condemnation of Flávio for fear of the political consequences of displeasing the new president — motives similar to the ones he had, just hours earlier on that day, suggested could cause Moro not to investigate Flávio.
After considering various options for how to talk about the Flávio case if he were asked in interviews, Dallagnol concluded, “This can only be read as wishy-washy and protective of the government.” Pozzobon agreed that Dallagnol should try to avoid speaking about the Flávio scandal, ending the discussion with this proclamation: “I believe silence in this case is more eloquent.”
One and a half months later, on January 21, in the same chat group of prosecutors, Dallagnol announced that he had been invited to be interviewed on Brazil’s “60-Minutes”-like, highly watched Sunday night news program on Globo, “Fantastico,” to speak about ongoing corruption debates. The prosecutor was excited to be interviewed to the extent the questions focused on the case the program’s producers had specified: namely, corruption allegations against federal Congressman Paulo Pimenta, a member of the center-left Workers’ Party, the same party as Lula’s.
Dallagnol was particularly happy to speak critically about the Workers’ Party congressman’s invocation of a special legal “privilege” that has effectively shielded many lawmakers from investigation because it stipulates that federal lawmakers can be tried on criminal charges only by the Supreme Court. The law in question was enacted upon Brazil’s re-democratization as a protection against dictatorship-era abuses in which military regime leaders would simply concoct corruption charges against dissident Congress members and remove them from office; however, the sheer number of corruption cases pending against Congress members has produced a huge backlog in the Supreme Court, thus meaning that lawmakers who invoke this right have a high likelihood that their cases will never be brought to justice, or at least not for many years. In the past, Car Wash prosecutors were never shy about forcefully denouncing the invocation of this congressional privilege when it came to other politicians charged with corruption.
But in the case of this “Fantastico” interview, Dallagnol, who has been severely critical of lawmakers who invoke this right, was suddenly reluctant to accept the invitation to speak on such an important national media stage due to his fear that he would have to talk not only about the Workers’ Party, but also about Bolsonaro’s son, Flávio, who had invoked the same privilege in an attempt — ultimately unsuccessful — to shield himself from investigation. Indeed, Flávio’s invocation of this privilege — preserved for federal lawmakers — was far more dubious than the Congress members whom the Car Wash prosecutors had previously criticized, because the corrupt acts of which Flávio is accused occurred prior to his being elected a federal senator. If any case of a politician abusing this privilege merited condemnation by the anti-corruption crusaders, it would be Flávio’s.
But in this private chat about the TV offer, Dallagnol expressed his reluctance to speak about the case involving Flávio, calculating that the risks of having to discuss the case were greater than the eventual benefits of the investigation: “I don’t see that we have anything to gain because this question [of the privilege] is already settled.” His Car Wash colleagues agreed that while an interview about the Workers’ Party case would present no problem, the best option was to reject “Fantastico’s” invitation in order to avoid what they described, invoking soccer imagery, as a “divided ball” around Flávio Bolsonaro (the Globo news program declined to comment on this story).
All of these chats are drawn from the archive of messages that The Intercept began to reveal on June 9, in a series titled the “Secret Brazil Archive” (in Brazil, the scandal has become widely known by the Twitter hashtag The Intercept Brasil coined on the day of the first series of articles: #VazaJato, a play on the word “leak” in Portuguese (“vazamento”) and the name of the Car Wash investigation, Lava Jato). The statement from the editors of The Intercept and The Intercept Brasil published with the first series of reports explained the criteria used to report on this vast trove of materials; the ongoing reporting now includes partnerships with some of Brazil’s largest media outlets, including its largest center-right weekly magazine Veja (which has supported Moro and the Car Wash probe in the past), to ensure that the archive materials in the public interest are reported as quickly and responsibly as possible.
The idea that Moro was eager to protect Jair Bolsonaro’s son, or at least eager to avoid his investigation, was expressed again in the prosecutors’ chat groups in mid-January. This chat was prompted by Dallagnol’s finally making a public statement about the corruption allegations against Flávio Bolsonaro. He did so in response to pressure and questions from Intercept Brasil reporter, and now editor, Rafael Moro Martins, who pressed the task force on why it had said nothing about Flávio’s case even though it had often publicly expressed views on similar corruption cases by other politicians.
After Dallagnol posted a public statement about the Flávio case in response to The Intercept’s pressure, his press aide, in a private chat, praised him for doing so, writing to him: “This reinforces our non-partisanship.” After praising Dallagnol’s denunciation of Flávio, the press adviser then criticized Moro’s far less assertive statements whenever the justice minister was asked about Flávio’s scandal involving Queiroz: “They say his comments on Queiroz were very ‘neutral,’ that they had no firmness, you know? To many people, it seems Moro wanted to escape to the margins.” Moro, said Dallagnol’s press aide in their private chat, “stayed on top of the wall”— a common phrase in Portuguese for those who refuse to take a position or get involved in a dispute.
Those comments from Dallagnol’s aide were posted in mid-January, just a little more than a month after Dallagnol himself, in December, debated the case with his colleagues and expressed a similar concern that Moro would not pursue the allegations against Flávio with the investigative rigor they merit.
This conversation with Dallagnol’s aide occurred two months after several federal prosecutors had privately complained, as The Intercept previously reported, about the ethical conduct of Moro during the years he was a judge overseeing the Car Wash investigation. What emerges from an examination of these chats is a clear pattern of Moro’s closest allies on the Car Wash prosecutors’ task force — who praised and defended him in public — privately voicing many of the same critiques and concerns about his methods and motives as many of his harshest critics.
In the Brazilian press, Moro has now been questioned several times about his apparent apathy about the investigation into corruption allegations against Bolsonaro’s son, as well as about a major scandal involving Bolsonaro’s political party during the 2018 election. In response, Moro generally claims that he has no control over the Federal Police, even though it reports to him, because, he says, they maintain investigative autonomy. Thus, he implies, any failure on the part of the Federal Police to adequately investigate the Bolsonaros’ corruption scandals has nothing to do with him.
But Moro’s claim that he does not control the Federal Police — a claim made in response to criticisms that as justice minister he has sought to protect Bolsonaro, his family, and his party — should be viewed with substantial skepticism. After all, Moro, for years, also publicly insisted that he had no role in the management and direction of the Car Wash prosecutions that he was required to judge as a neutral arbiter: a claim that The Intercept’s reporting, with the aid of this archive, has proven to be false.
Additional reporting: Amanda Audi and João Felipe Linhares
A massive trove of previously undisclosed materials provides unprecedented insight into the operations of the anti-corruption task force that transformed Brazilian politics and gained worldwide attention.