May 5, 2020 / 4:05 PM / 24 days ago

Rio police chief swap adds to federal probe of Bolsonaro

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro confirmed on Tuesday the replacement of the federal police chief in Rio de Janeiro, adding to scrutiny by the country’s top prosecutor of the right-wing populist’s alleged interference in law enforcement.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro reacts as he leaves Alvorada Palace, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brasilia, Brazil May 5, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The change was the first move by the new national head of the federal police, Rolando Souza, who was sworn in quickly on Monday in a closed-door ceremony following a Supreme Court decision to block Bolsonaro’s earlier pick, a family friend.

The prosecutor general’s office said it will question the reasons for changing Rio’s police chief as part of an investigation of former Justice Minister Sergio Moro’s accusations that Bolsonaro was meddling in police affairs.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court granted the prosecutor general the right to interrogate three cabinet ministers who may have knowledge of the matter.

The widely popular Moro shocked Brazil by resigning last month, alleging that Bolsonaro was pushing to change management of the federal police to get access to ongoing investigations, with particular focus on Rio, one of Brazil’s 27 states and districts, where he built his political base.

“‘Moro, you get 27 police chiefs, and I get just one, in Rio de Janeiro,’” the former minister quoted the president as saying in confidential police testimony obtained by Reuters on Tuesday.

Bolsonaro has denied inappropriate motives for the changes and waved away accusations that he is trying to deflect criminal probes targeting his two sons who are also Rio-based politicians.

“None of my relatives are being investigated by the federal police, not I, nor my sons,” Bolsonaro told reporters outside the presidential palace.

Bolsonaro said the outgoing Rio police chief had been promoted to executive director of the federal police in Brasilia, the second-highest post in the force, but essentially a desk job without a direct role in investigations.

Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, is facing investigation by Rio state police regarding alleged embezzlement and money laundering during his time as a state lawmaker.

His younger brother, Rio city councilman Carlos Bolsonaro, has been targeted in a Supreme Court probe of defamatory “fake news” schemes, according to newspaper Folha de S.Paulo.

Bolsonaro and his sons have denied any wrongdoing and called the investigations politically motivated.

Moro’s resignation and testimony to prosecutors have set off Bolsonaro’s most serious political crisis since he took office last year, eroding his support and feeding talk of impeachment.

The former minister, a symbol of Brazil’s anti-corruption efforts who locked up scores of businessmen and politicians as a judge, testified to prosecutors and police on Saturday as part of the prosecutor general’s probe, authorized by the Supreme Court.

The court blocked Bolsonaro’s first choice as top cop, Alexandre Ramagem, who runs Brazil’s intelligence agency and became a friend of the president’s sons after running their father’s security detail during the 2018 election campaign.

Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle; Additional reporting by Ricardo Brito; Editing by Brad Haynes, Paul Simao and Dan Grebler

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