Brazil police probe environment minister over timber exports

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s Federal Police on Wednesday carried out searches to investigate whether Environment Minister Ricardo Salles and other key figures within the ministry facilitated illegal timber exports to the U.S. and Europe.

The Supreme Court authorized the search of nearly three dozen locations in Sao Paulo state, the Amazonian state of Para and Brazil’s federal district, according to a police statement.

The operation stems from a decision of the court’s Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who ordered the investigation of 10 officials at the ministry and the regulatory agency.

Nine of them were preventatively suspended from working, including agency President Eduardo Bim — but not Salles — according to a copy of de Moraes’ May 13 decision made public on Wednesday. He wrote that there appeared to be a contraband scheme with Salles’ involvement.

Salles told reporters in capital Brasilia that his ministry has always acted in accordance with laws, and that police searches were unnecessary. The regulator didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

The justice’s decision alleged that officials issued several certificates retroactively authorizing specific timber shipments after their seizure abroad and that subsequently, in February 2020, Salles and Bim met with lumber companies and lawmakers about exports from Para state. Bim soon issued an order retroactively loosening requirements for “thousands of loads exported between 2019 and 2020 without respective documentaion,” de Moraes wrote. The judge’s decision also suspended Bim’s order.

Salles this year began talks with officials from the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, who has directly called on Brazil to curb rising Amazon deforestation. Foreign investors, particularly based in Europe, had already begun expressing greater concern. Officials and activists are watching closely for signs of whether recent signals from Bolsonaro’s administration that it wants to take stronger action amounts to more than lip service.

De Moraes’ decision provided particular detail about a shipment from London-based timber company Tradelink’s Brazilian subsidiary to its division in North Carolina that was held up in Savannah, Georgia. It cites federal police as saying U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Bryan Landry flagged many inconsistencies that Brazilian officials investigated, and which reinforced odds that illegally felled timber had been “laundered” to appear legal.

It also reproduced a letter from Landry that says the Fish and Wildlife Service has opened an investigation into Tradelink’s possible involvement in corruption and fraud.

A lawyer representing Tradelink said in an email that the company is unaware of any ongoing investigation. The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment when asked by email to confirm the U.S. probe.

The judge also granted police access to the confidential banking records of Salles and others under investigation, including at least five companies, from January of 2018 until May 12.

Salles’ private residence in Sao Paulo and the Environment Ministry offices were among the locations police searched on Wednesday, local media reported.

Police said in their statement that investigations began in January, and potential crimes include corruption, facilitation of contraband and sponsoring private interests while working as a public servant.

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