By Ricardo Brito
BRASILIA, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Political pressure is growing in Brazil to disband a high-profile team of anti-corruption prosecutors that has put dozens of former executives and politicians behind bars, despite its strong popular support and hundreds of cases still pending.
Prosecutor General Augusto Aras will decide on Sept. 10 whether to renew for another year the mandate of the team, which has repeatedly made headlines over the last six years with its sprawling 'Car Wash' corruption probe.
Aras, who has not spoken about his intentions, declined to comment for this story.
But the country's top public prosecutor is facing pressure from influential politicians for the task force to be disbanded, as skepticism grows about President Jair Bolsonaro's commitment to a campaign promise to tackle corruption.
The 65-year-old former army captain took office at the start of last year amid popular anger at corruption under the former governments of the leftist Workers Party, but has since railed at investigations of alleged graft involving members of his own family.
Senator Major Olimpio, Bolsonaro's former right-hand man in Congress, said there was a broad political movement afoot to stop the task force's investigations and annul ongoing trials.
"Today there is a campaign to demonize Car Wash," said Olimpio. The right-wing senator cited pressure from politicians under investigation to shut it down, by opening a parliamentary inquiry that has questioned its work and appeals to the Supreme Court to terminate its probes.
Leftist Senator Randolfe Rodrigues has joined Olimpio in advocating for keeping Car Wash going.
"The conditions are there for Aras not to extend the work of the task force," he said.
With a raft of investigations opening in Brazil into alleged corruption in the purchase of medical equipment to combat COVID-19, there are abundant signs that graft is thriving despite the years of prosecutions.
The Car Wash investigation shocked many Brazilians by revealing the widespread use of political kickbacks on major state contracts, particularly at the massive state-run oil company, Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras) PETR4.SA.
A senior member of the task force, requesting anonymity, said there were still 400 ongoing probes by federal prosecutors and police stemming from the Car Wash investigation. A second source, directly familiar with their investigations, confirmed the figure.
"You just cannot stop all the relevant work that is still being done," the task force member said.
Among the cases still open are investigations into contracts signed by Petrobras in the past with several multinational firms, as well as deals by financial institutions and new probes into leasing of ships, the first source said.
Still in the pipeline are investigations of money laundering through art galleries and of politicians who are no longer in office and have lost their legal prerogatives, the source said.
If the Car Wash team were dismantled and its 14 prosecutors dispersed, corruption investigations would likely return to the pre-Car Wash days, where just one prosecutor would remain in Curitiba handling the ongoing probes, the sources said.
The Car Wash operation has attracted criticism from legal experts for what they say is an excessive use of plea bargains, as well as the temporary arrest of suspects and potential witnesses to obtain information.
But more than six years after it began with an investigation into a gas station in Brasilia that had a car wash, the task force headed by 40-year-old lawyer Deltan Dallagnol still enjoys the support of most Brazilians.
A recent poll by Instituto Paraná Pesquisas found that 78% of those surveyed favor the task force continuing its work.
But the political climate in Congress has changed. To avoid the danger of impeachment over the corruption scandals involving his family, and to advance his legislative agenda, Bolsonaro has sought to build alliances with politicians he once pilloried for graft and who are the main proponents for ending Car Wash.
The president, who praised Car Wash during his successful presidential campaign in 2018, has said nothing about whether he thinks the task force's mandate should be extended by his appointee Aras.
On the left, many in the Workers Party also want the demise of a team of prosecutors that put former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in jail for receiving bribes, which the party has denounced as a politically-motivated prosecution.
Meanwhile, the task force's key ally in government has gone.
Sergio Moro, the former lead federal judge on Car Wash, resigned as Bolsonaro's justice minister in April, after accusing the president of trying to meddle with police operations that could have culminated in the prosecution of his eldest son.
In comments emailed to Reuters, Moro said the Car Wash investigation had ended a long tradition of impunity for corruption in Brazil.
"It was so wide-ranging that it created enemies among some politically powerful people," he said.
(Reporting by Ricardo Brito; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O'Brien)
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