Brazilian court closes bribery lawsuit against Jewish billionaire

Marcy Oster

RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) — A Brazilian federal court has closed a criminal lawsuit that accused banker Joseph Safra to be part of a conspiracy to pay bribes to Brazilian tax officials, which the Jewish billionaire and philanthropist has always denied.

“Mr. Safra was not investigated, he was not even heard, and even so, he was denounced. The judges concluded that there was not a minimum of evidence to file a criminal suit,” Safra’s lawyer told reporters. The decision “prevents the continuation of the action for lack of just cause,” added a Safra Group statement.

The case was interrupted for the part dealing with Safra, but should continue in relation to other defendants, reported Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo on Tuesday.

In March, Brazilian justice authorities said that the Safra knew but said nothing about corruption that resulted in a probe of some of Brazil’s richest and most powerful people.

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The financier, who is said by Fortune magazine to be the world’s richest banker, was accused of having 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.

Prosecutors made clear that Safra was not believed to have handled the bribe himself. The accusation was based on tapped phone calls between a Safra bank executive and tax officials.

Fortune and Forbes estimate Safra’s wealth at $18.6 billion, making him Brazil’s second-richest man and the 42nd-wealthiest person in the world. Safra, 77, controls a banking and financial conglomerate that operates in 19 countries.

“There have not been any improprieties by any of the businesses of the Safra Group,” the company said in a statement when the case was opened. “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.”

Termed Operation Zealot, the investigation concerns actions of Brazilian finance ministry officials. Prosecutors looked 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 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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