(Updates with details of allegations, pastor targeted)
By Pedro Fonseca and Guillermo Parra-Bernal
RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO Dec 16 Brazilian
federal police sought to question a prominent pastor and carried
out arrest and search warrants across the country on Friday as
part of an investigation into possible corruption involving 1.6
billion reais ($475 million) in excess mining royalties.
Silas Malafaia, one of Brazil's most influential evangelical
preachers, is accused of laundering money through church
Police said the investigation, "Operation Timóteo," involved
16 searches and raids across 11 states, including 29
interrogations, four detention warrants, 12 arrests and the
seizure of over 70 million reais ($21 million) in assets.
The scheme, which the police said was run by an unnamed
senior Mining and Energy Ministry official along with other
public servants and law firms aimed to raise the value of
royalties owed to municipal governments by mining companies.
A person familiar with the probe said among those affected
by the scheme was Vale SA , the world's top
iron ore producer. Vale did not have an immediate comment.
"Operation Timóteo" is the latest graft probe clouding the
political climate in Brazil, where a larger corruption scandal
involving state firms, contractors and hundreds of politicians.
Former President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in
August, tried for years to get Congress to raise royalties, a
move that regional governments endorsed but mining firms
opposed. Municipalities get about 65 percent of mining royalties
through the so-called CFEM tax every year.
The probe began last year when a government ombudsman asked
the police to investigate whether the tax records of the mining
ministry official were consistent with his income. According to
the police, the official might have earned at least 7 million
reais from the scheme.
Malafaia, a Rio de Janeiro-based Pentecostal pastor with
over 1.3 million followers on Twitter, has written books that
have sold in the millions and his sermons are broadcast around
Malafaia was an outspoken opponent of Rousseff during her
successful 2014 re-election campaign, urging his legion of
followers to vote against her.
The pastor took to Twitter on Friday to blast the police
operation against him, saying that he is currently in Sao Paulo
but received a phone call from authorities informing him that
they had raided his house in Rio.
Malafaia said that he receives donations from "countless
people" and that "if some criminal offers me a donation, and I
don't know the origin of the money, that makes me a criminal?"
($1 = 3.369 reais)
(Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia and
Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo; Editing by Jane Merriman and Jeffrey