Bolsonaro names 'Car Wash' judge Brazil justice minister in divisive hire

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil’s far-right president-elect has convinced crusading anti-graft judge Sergio Moro to become his justice minister, the two said on Thursday, delighting his supporters and enraging critics by hiring the jurist who jailed his chief political rival.

Moro oversaw the so-called “Operation Car Wash” probe that convicted former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of bribery and money laundering, blocking him from running against Jair Bolsonaro earlier this year, when he led opinion polls.

A telegenic 46-year-old who has previously dismissed any political ambitions, Moro flew to Bolsonaro’s beachside Rio de Janeiro home on Thursday, where he met with Brazil’s next president for about an hour before both announced the decision.

“Federal judge Sergio Moro accepted our invite for the justice and public security ministry. His anti-corruption and anti-organized crime agenda, as well as his respect for the laws and the constitution, will be our guide,” Bolsonaro tweeted.

The president-elect scores a clear political victory with the appointment of Moro, who gained a cult following in Brazil after he locked up a string of politicians and businessmen in the country’s biggest-ever graft investigation.

Bolsonaro surged to victory on Sunday, promising to combat corruption and violent crime.

But the decision also gives ammunition to his opponents on the left, who have long argued that the “Car Wash” probe was a politicized purge aimed at sidelining Lula and his leftist Workers Party (PT).

As Brazilians geared up to vote last month, Moro came under fire for releasing plea-bargain testimony alleging a bribery scheme by PT members to fund their 2014 electoral campaign.

“Moro will be Bolsonaro’s minister after his decisive role in his election, by blocking Lula from running,” wrote PT President Gleisi Hoffmann on Twitter. “Fraud of the century!”

In choosing to work with Bolsonaro, Moro appears to have cast aside criticisms about the political motivations behind his probe, attracted by the chance to rebuild Brazil’s justice ministry under his own vision.

But working with Bolsonaro, who has upset many with racist, misogynist and homophobic comments and is accused of showing scant regard for democratic institutions, will also pose a unique set of challenges for Moro.

Bolsonaro denies his critics’ allegations and pledges to respect the constitution. In comments to reporters aboard a plane on Thursday, Moro noted that Bolsonaro had won the votes of more than 55 million Brazilians.

WARMING TO POLITICS

In 2016, Moro said he would never enter politics, keeping the focus on his graft-fighting crusade in the courts. But the rise of Bolsonaro, a seven-term congressman who has cast himself as a political maverick untainted by graft allegations, appears to have changed the judge’s mind.

Some on Bolsonaro’s team would even like Moro to run for the presidency in 2022, according to a report by a Folha de S. Paulo columnist on the newspaper’s website on Thursday.

Moro, whose name was floated as a possible presidential candidate in the run-up to this year’s election, has seen his profile explode in just four years as his name became synonymous with probes targeting a corrupt political establishment.

“ Operation Car Wash” was based on his studies of Italy’s “Clean Hands” investigations that helped curtail the power of the Mafia in the early 1990s. He has said the Italian example shows the importance of political and popular support for anti-corruption initiatives.

Early last year, Moro enjoyed the support of nearly two- thirds of Brazilians in opinion polls. That figure dropped sharply after he sentenced Lula, a leftist icon still remembered fondly for reducing inequality during his 2003-2011 presidency.

During the campaign his wife, Rosangela Wolff Moro, came under fire for Instagram posts some saw as favorable to Bolsonaro. She applauded his second-round victory on Sunday on social media.

In a public statement, Moro said he would hand over the reins of the sprawling “Car Wash” investigation to other judges in his home town of Curitiba to avoid controversy.

Bolsonaro is expected to announce a full cabinet this month, ahead of his term beginning in January.

On Thursday, his top agriculture adviser said he had recommended a two-time congressman from the south of the country to become the new agriculture minister.

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