Brazilian banker Safra denies bribe charges against his employees

Cnaan Liphshiz

RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) — Brazilian justice authorities said that the Jewish billionaire and philanthropist Joseph Safra knew but said nothing about corruption that resulted in a probe of some of Brazil’s richest and most powerful people.

The financier, who is said by Fortune magazine to be the world’s richest banker, is alleged to have known of a plan by executives at his banking group in Brazil to pay $4.2 million in bribes to help reduce tax debts amounting to nearly $500 million, sources in Brazil’s Federal Police told local media Thursday.

Prosecutors made clear that Safra is not believed to have handled the bribe himself. The accusation is based on tapped phone calls between a Safra bank executive and tax officials. Fortune and Forbes estimate the 77-year-old Joseph Safra’s wealth at $18.6 billion, making him Brazil’s second-richest man and the 42nd-wealthiest person in the world. The Safra Group issued a statement calling the corruption allegations unfounded.

“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.”

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Termed Operation Zealot, the investigation concerns actions of Brazilian finance ministry officials. Prosecutors say they are looking into at least 70 industrial, engineering, agricultural and financial groups over possible bribes allegedly paid to a ministry panel on tax appeals in exchange for results favorable to them.

“The criminal intentions of the [Safra] 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 leading philanthropist in Brazil’s 120,000-strong Jewish community, Joseph Safra was born in Aleppo, Syria, but raised in Lebanon. His family moved to Brazil in 1952. He founded Safra Bank in 1955.

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