Brazil police target top financiers

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Brazilian police arrested a former Sao Paulo mayor and two prominent financiers Tuesday in a case that grew out of an influence-peddling scandal involving senior government officials.

Federal police announced arrest warrants for 24 people in connection with schemes involving prominent businessmen Daniel Dantas and Naji Nahas. Charges include corruption, money laundering, sending illegal remittances abroad, tax evasion and criminal associations.

Protogenes Queiroz, the federal police officer who heads the investigation, said charges stemmed from a four-year investigation of top aides to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and allied party officials accused of bribing lawmakers.

At a news conference in Sao Paulo, Queiroz said there were two criminal organizations, one headed by Dantas, the other by Nahas.

“We were amazed with the level of organization and the power of these two organizations to intimidate and corrupt,” Queiroz said.

Dantas’ attorney Nelio Machado called the arrest of his client “arbitrary and unnecessary.”

A lawyer for arrested former Sao Paulo Mayor Celso Pitta called the operation “sensationalist.”

“The operation was released in the press before he was even detained at his home at 6:00 a.m.,” attorney Paula Sion de Souza Neves told Globo TV. He did not address accusations against Pitta.

Nahas’ lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment. An appeals court last year threw out Nahas’ 1997 conviction and 25-year sentence in a stock futures scheme.

Pitta was mayor of Brazil’s largest city and financial capital from January 1997 to December 2000 and is fighting criminal charges in another case that he diverted public funds to private accounts while mayor.

Pitta has denied wrongdoing in that case.

Queiroz said the recent probe began after investigators discovered financial transactions between a bank that Dantas owns and an advertising executive accused of providing the money to legislators to support government initiatives in Congress.

Federal police added that their investigations into Dantas also led them to another other group, headed by Nahas, which they said was involved in insider trading and illegal foreign exchange trades.

Police said Pitta was arrested for using Nahas’ firm to illegally transfer funds abroad.

Dantas, one of the owners of Banco Opportunity, a private investment bank, testified before a congressional committee in 2006 that the former treasurer of the ruling Workers’ Party asked for money to help the bank keep control of a telephone company.

Dantas said he refused to pay, but declined to characterize the alleged request as an extortion attempt.