(Recasts throughout, adds background)
By Guillermo Parra-Bernal and Eduardo Simões
SAO PAULO Dec 13 A Brazilian federal court
dropped a case against Joseph Safra, the world's richest banker,
over an alleged scheme to pay bribes to government officials in
return for waiving tax debts.
The media office of the Brasilia-based Regional Federal
Tribunal for the 1st Region said the decision favoring Safra was
approved by the court in a 2-to-1 ruling.
In a statement, the Safra Group said the ruling prevents
"the continuation of the action for lack of just cause and the
proceeding ... is now closed."
In March, prosecutors asked that Safra be charged on claims
he had knowledge of a 2014 plan by executives at an asset
management unit of his Banco Safra SA to pay 15.3 million reais
($4.6 million) in bribes to federal tax auditors. Safra
repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
The probe and subsequent charges against Safra stemmed from
a broader police inquiry known as "Operation Zealots," focused
on kickbacks paid by companies through lobbyists.
Dozens of Brazilian firms, including steelmaker Gerdau SA
and several banks including Banco Bradesco SA, have
been under investigation for suspected bribes.
The investigation centers on whether companies bribed
members of CARF, a body within the finance ministry that hears
appeals on tax disputes, to get favorable rulings that reduced
or waived the amounts owed.
According to a person with direct knowledge of Safra's
process, the court's ruling cannot be appealed. The
Lebanese-Brazilian billionaire, whose fortune is estimated at
about $19 billion by Forbes Magazine, controls a banking and
financial conglomerate that operates in 19 countries.
Operation Zealots has not only implicated some of Brazil's
most influential firms but also some of the nation's foremost
power brokers. Luiz Carlos Trabuco, Bradesco's chief executive
officer, has been accused alongside three of the bank's main
Trabuco has denied any wrongdoing.
($1 = 3.3252 reais)
(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Tom Brown)