Fabrício Queiroz, a former driver for Sen. Flávio Bolsonaro, the president's son, was arrested as part of a joint operation between public prosecutors of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo states, the Rio prosecutors' office said in a statement. The probe is into an alleged phantom employee corruption scheme.
Images on local television showed police escorting him out of a property in Atibaia, a town in Sao Paulo's interior. Local media reported the property belongs to Flávio Bolsonaro’s lawyer. Jandir Neto, a prosecutor involved in the case, said in a televised interview with CNN Brasil that it was a legal office, without specifying whose.
Flávio Bolsonaro denied any wrongdoing and his lawyer, Frederick Wassef, didn’t respond to messages and calls from The Associated Press. Wassef is frequently seen in the presidential palace and the official residence, most recently yesterday when he attended the swearing-in ceremony of a minister.
Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment and with promises to clean up the capital, Brasilia. He's seen his rejection levels rise as Brazil's COVID-19 death toll climbed to the second highest in the world, and after the resignation of his popular justice minister, who alleged Bolsonaro sought to interfere politically in the Federal Police.
The president said in a live broadcast on his social media channels that Queiroz's arrest was designed to be a show. He also downplayed the risks for himself. “I am not Queiroz's lawyer and I am not involved in this case," Bolsonaro said. “May justice follow its course.”
The arrest on Thursday comes on the heels of other probes targeting Bolsonaro's allies, including activists, lawmakers and businessmen. Authorities on Monday arrested the leader of an activist group that backs Bolsonaro, accusing her of raising funds for anti-democratic actions. Federal Police on Tuesday carried out almost two dozen search warrants as part of the same investigation, and local media reported that the Supreme Court granted access to multiple lawmakers' private banking records.
″There are several investigations and operations from the police and the Supreme Court which are getting closer to Bolsonaro´s inner circle,” Maurício Santoro, a political science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said in a text message. “The arrest of Queiroz is big news - and a huge concern for Bolsonaro.”
In recent months, “Where is Queiroz?” became a rallying cry for Bolsonaro opponents who were dismayed that the former driver continued to elude authorities. President Bolsonaro in October said Queiroz, a former military police officer, had been his friend since the 1980s, but he hadn’t spoken with him since allegations surfaced.
The investigation that yielded his arrest began when the government’s watchdog for financial transactions detected suspicious movements in his bank account, according to authorities. It is suspected the money may form part of a corruption scheme involving appropriation of salaries from phantom employees of Flávio Bolsonaro’s office while he was a lawmaker in Rio state’s legislature.
The financial regulator has said that many of the payments to Queiroz came on pay days for people on Flávio Bolsonaro’s payroll. In December, Rio prosecutors carried out searches at 24 properties, including a chocolate shop owned by Bolsonaro.
He said on Twitter that the operation is part of an attempt to damage his father's administration. “I face today’s events with calm. The truth will prevail! Another piece was moved on the board to attack Bolsonaro,” the younger Bolsonaro said. “The game is rough!”
A profanity-laced video released May 22 at the order of a Supreme Court justice, showed Bolsonaro at a Cabinet meeting in April expressing frustration with his inability to get information from police and vowing to change ministers if needed to protect his family and friends.
The presidential press office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, and as of early afternoon Bolsonaro hadn't made any comment on social media. Queiroz stopped working with Flávio Bolsonaro in October 2018. Paulo Marinho, a businessman and former ally of President Bolsonaro, told newspaper Folha de S.Paulo last month that Flávio Bolsonaro decided to fire Queiroz upon receiving leaked information that his aide would be targeted by an investigation.
“The investigation will advance and could eventually hold Flávio Bolsonaro responsible,” said Michael Mohallem, a law professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university and think tank. "Flávio isn't just a son; he's a politician and his father's advisor. There's been contamination of the president's image. Bolsonaro, who already had his image as an anti-corruption leader eroded, will be hit further.”