Brazil Police Target Rousseff's Former Campaign Strategist

  • Probes focus on campaigner's alleged use of kickbacks
  • Odebrecht offices searched; company says open to cooperate

Brazilian police carried out another series of search and arrest warrants related to the Car Wash scheme of alleged kickbacks at state-run oil company Petrobras, renewing the focus on President Dilma Rousseff’s party.

Police searched offices of construction and engineering conglomerate Odebrecht SA and the apartment of Joao Santana, the strategist behind the presidential campaigns of Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, investigators said Monday. They said they were probing whether possible kickbacks from Petrobras were used to pay Santana, for whom an arrest warrant was issued.

Santana’s lawyer was not available to comment at his office. A prosecutor said the warrant wasn’t carried out, as he is outside Brazil.

The latest phase in the nearly two-year probe known as Car Wash pushes the public spotlight even closer to the ruling Workers’ Party and Rousseff, who is struggling to fight off an impeachment process and pull Brazil out of its deepest recession in over 100 years. Former President Lula in recent weeks moved to the center of police probes, which already led to a sentencing of the party’s former treasurer and temporarily imprisonment of the government’s former leader in the Senate.

Rousseff’s press office declined to comment and the Lula Institute headed by the former president did not reply to a request for comment. They both have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

‘Faster Decision’

Brazil’s electoral court, known as the TSE, is investigating whether Rousseff’s re-election campaign in 2014 used kickbacks from Petroleo Brasileiro SA, the official name for Petrobras. While prosecutors said they aren’t specifically targeting campaigns, the evidence supporting the warrant for Santana’s arrest may put pressure on the TSE, according to Lucas de Aragao, partner at political risk consulting company Arko Advice.

“Clamor by society and the press, and the country’s situation, could prompt a faster decision,” De Aragao said. “Everyone knows Santana’s importance to the Workers’ Party. He was much more than just a simple strategist. He worked for a long time in the hard core of the presidency as adviser.”

Prosecutors also sought a new warrant for the arrest of Odebrecht’s former chief executive officer, Marcelo Odebrecht, prosecutor Carlos Lima told reporters. The request was based on notes found in his agenda calling for the transfer out of Brazil of employees who controlled payments abroad, he said, adding the former CEO’s plea was made after Car Wash revelations began surfacing. The request for a warrant was not authorized, and Marcelo Odebrecht remains under preventive arrest after being detained last year.

“We clearly have an activity of removing those people from the reach of Brazilian justice, which characterizes obstruction of the Car Wash investigations,” Lima said.

Odebrecht confirmed a police operation at its offices in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Bahia state. The company is open to cooperating with police, it said in an e-mailed statement. Marcelo Odebrecht has denied wrongdoing through lawyers.

Deeper Recession

The Car Wash scandal has shaken Brazil’s establishment, resulting in the imprisonment of high-profile company executives and politicians while causing a recession in Latin America’s largest economy to deepen further. Gross domestic product is projected to shrink 3.4 percent this year, following a 3.8 percent contraction in 2015, according to the latest central bank survey of analysts published.

Delcidio Amaral, the former government leader in the Senate, was released from jail last week and remains under partial house arrest.

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