Brazilian prosecutors have filed corruption charges against billionaire Joseph Safra, said by Fortune magazine to be the world’s richest banker, and five others for involvement in an alleged scheme to pay off government tax auditors.
The financier, who owns London’s Norman Foster-designed “Gherkin” skyscraper, is alleged to have known of a plan by executives at his banking group in Brazil to pay R$15.3m in bribes to help reduce tax debts today amounting to R$1.8bn.
“The criminal intentions of the group is made clear by the various conversations and exchanges of messages cited in the indictment,” the prosecutors said in a statement signed in Brasília.
The Safra Group said in a statement that the allegations “were unfounded”.
Although deeply publicity-shy, Mr Safra’s family has made several high-profile acquisitions in recent years, from the £726m purchase of the Gherkin to the $1.3bn joint takeover of Chiquita, the banana company, with Brazilian orange juice group Cutrale.
Fortune estimates the 77-year-old Mr Safra’s wealth at $18.6bn, making him Brazil’s second-richest man after Jorge Paulo Lemann, the beer and food billionaire and partner of US investor Warren Buffett in deals such as the takeovers of Heinz and Kraft.
“There have not been any improprieties by any of the businesses of The Safra Group,” the company said in a statement. “No representative of the group offered any inducement to any public official and the group did not receive any benefit in the judgment of the tribunal.”
The investigation into Safra is part of a probe into a tax audit scandal that could unveil even wider corruption than a parallel investigation, the so-called Car Wash probe into Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, analysts say.
Termed Operation Zealot, the investigation is examining decisions by the so-called Carf, the part of Brazil’s finance ministry responsible for ruling on tax appeals.
Prosecutors say they are looking into at least 70 industrial, engineering, agricultural and financial groups over possible bribes to the tribunal in exchange for favourable rulings.
Police in February raided the offices of Gerdau, Brazil’s largest steelmaker, and issued an arrest warrant for its chief executive, amid suspicions the company evaded R$1.5bn in back taxes through the scheme.
Brazil’s once cosy business scene is being shaken up by increasingly independent and aggressive federal prosecutors, police and judges.
In the Petrobras scandal, judges have already handed out a total of nearly 1000 years of jail time in a country that was used to impunity for the rich and powerful.
While the Petrobras probe has netted a number of executives in mostly the oil and construction sectors, Zealot has the potential to span a wider array of the corporate world, analysts said.