By Brad Brooks
BRASILIA (Reuters) - Three senior Brazilian law enforcement officials, including the former prosecutor general, said new leaders of the federal police and prosecutors' offices are curbing an anti-corruption drive that challenged centuries of impunity in Latin America's biggest country.
Rodrigo Janot, who until mid-September was Brazil's prosecutor general and remains an influential senior prosecutor, told Reuters this week he believes that President Michel Temer, whom he charged on three different counts of corruption, appointed a new head of federal police specifically to "divert" graft investigations.
Separately, two other senior law enforcement officials said that Raquel Dodge, Janot's replacement as prosecutor general, told some senior prosecutors in the capital Brasilia to shift away from corruption probes and stop talking publicly about anti-graft efforts.
In a statement, the president's office said the police chief was appointed after consultations with the police force. It criticized any suggestions the new director would hinder investigations.
"Only someone ill-informed or ill-intentioned could suppose that interference in investigations is possible," Temer's office said.
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A spokeswoman for Dodge said the new prosecutor general was vigorously combating corruption on numerous fronts.
Fernando Segovia, the new police director, in an email to Reuters said his office will strengthen the fight against corruption.
Brazil's crackdown on graft in recent years led to dozens of convictions of senior politicians, government officials and corporate executives, inspiring many Brazilians to believe that a longstanding culture of impunity was changing.
It also helped spawn similar crackdowns elsewhere in Latin America.
But in Brazil, where Congress recently shielded Temer from charges, some investigators and prosecutors say that elected officials are finding ways to outmaneuver them, especially as they seek, before elections next year, to retain seats that give them constitutional safeguards against prosecution.
The sprawling nature of many of Brazil's inquiries, conducted by investigators in dozens of far-flung offices, would make any concerted effort to derail them difficult, corruption experts said.
But Janot's dissent, and growing criticism expressed by other senior officials, reveal a growing rift at the top levels of Brazilian law enforcement at a time when some investigators believe Temer and Congressional allies are out to quash landmark investigations.
"Now is the time to speak up," Janot told Reuters, "so that all this effort will not have been in vain."
BILLIONS IN BRIBES
The effort, including "Operation Car Wash" and several other major investigations, involves probes into kickbacks by private construction firms to government officials and politicians in exchange for public works and other contracts.
It uncovered billions of dollars worth of illicit payments and led to sharing of evidence with 40 other countries, many of which launched their own probes and convicted officials based on Brazilian investigators' findings.
During a rare, two-hour interview in Brasilia, Janot was especially critical of Segovia's appointment to head the federal police, which spearheaded Car Wash and other investigations.
The 61-year-old prosecutor, who stepped down as prosecutor general because the second of his two terms in the office expired in September, said he believes that "Segovia was named to complete a mission – to divert the focus of the investigations."
Janot cited public commentary made by the new police chief, including Segovia's criticism of prosecutors' investigations at a press conference shortly after he took office.
"By the statements he has made, it appears he was selected for the mission to discredit the investigation," Janot added.
Segovia, 48, who has spent over two decades on the force, in the email said he seeks to "strengthen investigations of crimes against public coffers and involving corruption."
"I have made clear in all my public statements that we will broaden and strengthen Operation Car Wash," he added.
The new police chief was appointed with strong support from Temer's ruling Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB.
His appointment surprised some within the federal police because Segovia has never held what is considered one of the force's major posts, according to other investigators and law enforcement experts.
During a press conference on Nov. 20, ten days into the new job, Segovia criticized prosecutors for their case against Temer, calling it a rushed investigation.
He belittled the evidence, including a video shot by federal police of a Temer aide accepting a bag with 500,000 reais ($150,000) in cash.
"A single bag does not provide the criminal evidence needed," Segovia said, prompting widespread scorn in Brazilian press and social media.
"It cannot be denied that the statements made by the new director of the federal police were extremely unfortunate," read an editorial in the Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil's largest newspaper, afterward.
When Dodge took office on Sept 19, she was widely criticized by police, prosecutors and many others in Brazil for failing in a speech to acknowledge the historic "Car Wash" probe.
The two senior law enforcement officials, who requested to remain anonymous, said that the new prosecutor general has told other prosecutors to shift their focus from graft. Dodge also told some prosecutors to stop using the word "corruption" so much in public, they said.
The prosecutor general's spokeswoman did not respond to questions about whether Dodge told prosecutors to avoid the word "corruption" or whether she told prosecutors to de-emphasize graft cases.
Janot declined to comment on Dodge's dealings with other prosecutors, saying he has a "professional and respectful" relationship with his successor.
Although it is early in the tenure of both Dodge and Segovia, some prosecutors and police investigators say they are already seeing a significant slowdown in procedures necessary to pursue some cases.
Janot, for instance, said Dodge's office has filed far less paperwork with Brazil's Supreme Court than would have been expected given the caseload when she took over. The paperwork is a key step in many big investigations because only the top court can authorize probes involving elected federal officials.
A spokeswoman for the top court did not respond to a request for comment on the volume of the paperwork.
Before his term expired, the prosecutor general's office this year sent an average of 302 requests related to the "Car Wash" corruption investigations to the Supreme Court each month, Janot said.
Dodge's office said it had filed a total of 450 requests since she took office in mid-September, representing an average of 180 per month, or a roughly 40 percent drop.
Some experts say it is too soon to know whether a shift away from corruption investigations is underway or even possible to orchestrate, particularly because of the number of investigators pursuing cases across Brazil. More time is needed, they say, to evaluate Dodge's administration.
"Even if Dodge and Segovia were strategically appointed to stop or create delays in investigations, I doubt they would succeed because the process has become decentralized," said Carlos Pereira, a professor of public administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro and a leading expert on corruption.
Still, those involved in ongoing cases are troubled by any prospect of a slowdown, particularly with national elections looming next October, which would prolong constitutional protections for many office-holders facing charges.
"The risks increase exponentially as the elections approach," said Carlos Lima, the top regional prosecutor in Curitiba, the southern city where the "Car Wash" investigations began.
During his conversation with Reuters, Janot criticized Segovia's support from Temer and his allies, some of whom are also facing investigations and charges.
"A person with close ties to these people – some under investigation, some charged – I cannot say if they should be allowed to run an institution of the size and importance of the federal police," Janot said.
In the email, Segovia said "I have no type of political or party ties with the PMDB or any other political party."
Temer, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, staved off prosecution largely because allies in the lower house of Congress, which must authorize charges against a sitting president, voted against it.
The vote outraged many Brazilians because some of those who voted against the charges in Congress are also being investigated. Temer will still face charges once he leaves federal elected office.
The pushback is such that a Congressional committee is now investigating how federal prosecutors carried out their probe against Temer.
"We're going to investigate those who have always investigated us," said Carlos Marun, a PMDB Congressman and Temer ally, who danced on the lower house floor after it voted against sending the president for trial.
Marun himself is facing a corruption trial in his home state of Mato Grosso do Sul. He has denied any wrongdoing.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Brasilia.; Editing by Paulo Prada.)