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‘Car Wash’ Case Puts Focus on Brazil Underground FX Trade

A $4.5 billion money laundering investigation is putting the spotlight on an underground currency market wealthy Brazilians have used for years to dodge taxes.

The federal police have charged 46 people, including the former head of refining at state-controlled Petroleo Brasileiro SA, Paulo Roberto Costa, for financial crimes including money laundering and illegal money transfers in the so-called Lava Jato, or car wash, operation, the federal police said in a statement. Two of them were charged with financing drug trafficking.

The investigation focused on four criminal groups led by doleiros, or informal money changers, the police said. Doleiros receive money from clients in Brazil and then make deposits abroad for a fee, allowing clients to export cash without alerting the tax authorities.

“You avoid the problem of tax collectors seeing what you’re doing,” David Fleischer, political science professor at the University of Brasilia, said by telephone. “You use a doleiro to evade taxes or avoid convictions on corruption.”

Fifteen of the people charged are currently in jail. The police have also seized three hotels, six residences, 25 luxury cars and about 6 million reais ($2.3 million) in cash, according to the statement. The police estimate about 10 billion reais was moved by people involved in the case.

Costa’s lawyer Fernando Fernandes went to a federal court today to present a petition of habeas corpus and request Costa’s arrest be overturned, Fernandes said in an e-mailed statement.

Additional Scrutiny

The investigation puts additional scrutiny on Petrobras, the world’s biggest deep-water producer that has gone from a political asset to a liability for President Dilma Rousseff, who is eligible to run for re-election in October. Opposition lawmakers are pushing for a formal investigation into allegations Petrobras overpaid for a refinery in Texas in 2006 when Rousseff was the company’s chairwoman.

Petrobras Chief Executive Officer Maria das Gracas Foster told senators yesterday that Costa’s arrest was an embarrassment. Last week the company gave police documents related to the case. The police’s press office declined to comment on whether other Petrobras officials have been charged in the case.

“It’s potentially very explosive,” Fleischer said. “We’re not sure exactly where it’s going to go.”

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