Brazil Supreme Court chief says money laundering unit overreached

By Ricardo Brito and Lisandra Paraguassu

By Ricardo Brito and Lisandra Paraguassu

BRASILIA (Reuters) - A Brazilian government agency monitoring money laundering, at the heart of the recent fight against corruption, has repeatedly overreached by acting without judicial approval, the head of the country's Supreme Court told Reuters.

The Council for Financial Activities Control (COAF) has faced scrutiny since uncovering suspicious deposits in the account of the son of President Jair Bolsonaro.

In an interview on the eve of his first anniversary at the head of Brazil's top court, Dias Toffoli offered his clearest explanation yet behind a decision in July to suspend investigations that were based on information provided by COAF.

That decision, which said COAF should not have been passing information to prosecutors without the approval of a judge, scuppered the investigation into Senator Flavio Bolsonaro. COAF had identified 48 suspicious deposits worth a total of 100,000 reais ($27,000) deposited in his account in a single month in 2017.

Toffoli said the decision was not intended to help the president's son, but rather to protect civil liberties.

"These bodies (prosecutors) started asking COAF directly to extract financial flows of specific targets, subverting what they should have been asking the judiciary," Toffoli said at his office in Brasilia.

"Coaf proceeded to replace the judiciary, a usurpation of competence," he added. "These cases were suspended, these irregularities."

Toffoli said the court was deliberating over a solution that would better allow for individual rights to be protected.

His comments come as Brazil's largest-ever corruption probe, known as Operation Car Wash, has also suffered a dramatic fall from grace with leaked messages showing alleged collaboration between lead prosecutors and the main judge at the time — Sergio Moro, now Bolsonaro's justice minister.

"It is up to the institutions that have come to have greater power, to take on greater responsibility," Toffoli said.

"When there is overreach it harms not only society and its people but it damages the very institution itself," he said.

(This story clarifies in first two paragraphs that Supreme Court justice was referring to agency conduct in general and not in any specific case)


(Reporting by Ricardo Brito and Lisandra Paraguassu; Writing by Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Alistair Bell)