Soccer Icon Romario, Rio Mayor Paes Cited in Corruption Tape

  • Secret recording contains allegation of Romario-Paes pact
  • Tape led to arrest of top Brazilian banker and politician

One of Brazil’s most famous soccer players and the mayor fronting Rio de Janeiro’s build-up to next year’s Olympic games were mentioned in a recording that led to Tuesday’s arrests of one of Brazil’s richest men and a senior politician. Former soccer star Romario and Mayor Eduardo Paes both denied any wrongdoing.

On the tape, which was made available by prosecutors, Delcidio Amaral, the government’s leader in the Senate, says he has just returned from a meeting with Romario, Paes and Pedro Paulo, Paes’s chief lieutenant and his anointed successor. Amaral cites Paes as saying he had struck an agreement with Romario, the top scorer on Brazil’s triumphant 1994 World Cup team and a now a senator, to support Paulo rather than run for mayor himself.

Brazil’s largest-ever corruption investigation into kickbacks at state-run oil company Petrobras has spread and ensnared top political and business leaders. While many of the companies implicated are the same ones performing Olympic works, the sprawling scandal until now hasn’t touched Paes, whose name is often floated as a 2018 presidential candidate. Romario has been one of the biggest critics of corruption in soccer.

The taped conversation takes place in a Brasilia hotel suite between Amaral, the first sitting lawmaker to be arrested in the probe, Edson Ribeiro, a lawyer for jailed former Petrobras executive Nestor Cervero, and Cervero’s son Bernardo, an actor who secretly recorded the exchange and turned the tape over to prosecutors.

In the recording Ribeiro mentions a bank account Romario allegedly has in Switzerland. The soccer star in July forced popular news weekly Veja to apologize after it published what it claimed was a bank statement purporting to show Romario had 2.1 million Swiss francs ($2.1 million) in an account with BSI SA that he hadn’t declared to tax authorities. The bank and Romario said at the time the statements were fakes. It wasn’t clear if Ribeiro was talking about the same account.

When asked if the former Barcelona striker had a Swiss account, Amaral replies in the recording that an agreement with Paes to support his chosen candidate “was a function” of that bank account.

Romario and Paes both confirmed that the meeting with Amaral did take place on Nov. 4. On social media, Romario once again denied he had a Swiss account or that he had agreed to back Paulo.

“I make it clear I have no agreement with anyone, and unfortunately, the money is not mine,” Romario said in a Facebook post. “I say unfortunately because, of course, if it were mine, it would be the result of hard honest work.” Romario’s office did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Paes’s office said in an e-mailed statement that the meeting was to discuss municipal debt legislation, and highlighted Veja’s apology for publishing a false document. “Mayor Eduardo Paes has never denied that he’d like to have the political support of Romario for his candidate to be Rio mayor in 2016,” according to the statement.

The tape led to the arrests of both Amaral and Andre Esteves, the billionaire chairman of investment bank Grupo BTG Pactual, for allegedly trying to interfere with Cervero’s potential plea bargain. BTG in September completed a 1.25-billion Swiss franc acquisition of BSI, the Swiss bank that denied it had Romario’s bank account. Paes’s brother Guilherme Paes is a partner and director at BTG, according to the firm’s website.

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