The billionaire banker battling corruption charges in Brazil

Already charged with corruption in Brazil, the Panama Papers is just the latest scandal to implicate Brazilian billionaire banker Joseph Safra.


Joseph Safra: the world's richest banker

J Safra Sarasin, the Luxembourg-based private bank, was one of 500 wealth managers caught upthis week in the Panama Papers scandal. But it is far from the only Safra outfit under scrutiny, says the Daily Mail. In Brazil, the head of the banking dynasty himself is also in the crosshairs.

Joseph Safra, 77, is "the world's richest banker", worth around $18.6bn, according to Forbes. But last week he was charged with corruption for allegedly agreeing to pay more than $15.3m in bribes to tax auditors, in an effort to "reduce or annul" tax debts amounting to $504.6m, run up by his company, Banco Safra.

The Brazilian billionaire best known in the UK for owning London's "Gherkin" skyscraper insists the allegations are unfounded, says the Financial Times. But coming hot on the heels of the Petrobras investigation (which has embroiled several of Brazil's corporate titans as well as former president, Lula da Silva), they will "further shake-up a Brazilian corporate elite accustomed to a legal system that traditionally offered impunity to the rich".

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The investigation is part of a wider probe into a tax audit scandal that "could unveil even deeper corruption than the parallel Petrobras investigation". Prosecutors are looking into at least 70 industrial, engineering, agricultural and financial groups over claims they bribed the "Carf" the part of Brazil's finance ministry responsible for ruling on tax appeals.

The griminess of the allegations even if disproved is a stain on the illustrious history of a family of Sephardi Jews that boasts a banking empire dating back to the Ottoman empire, says Capital Finance International. The family fortune "originated on the dusty tracks of the camel-route between Aleppo, Syria and Istanbul".

In 1920, Safra's father, Jacob a gold trader opened a bank in Lebanon. The Safras rapidly gained a reputation for caution and discretion. In 1952, they moved to Brazil to escape regional tensions and extended their influence globally, says the FT. "For decades, the family has been guardian of the fortunes of the super-rich from Geneva to Sao Paulo."

Initially working with his brothers, Edmond and Moise, and later by himself, Safra built a behemoth spanning five continents, with interests in agribusiness and other areas, as well as in banking. In 2014, Safra masterminded a joint $1.3bn takeover of the banana company, Chiquita.

The family is notoriously private. Safra was said to be distraught in 2009 when the Safra name was linked to Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme. "Ten years earlier, his family endured a distressing whodunnit when his brother Edmond was killed in a mysterious arson attack on his Monte Carlo penthouse."

Indeed, the family is renowned in Brazil for its security consciousness, says The New York Times Safra often commutes by helicopter to avoid kidnapping. "If you choose to sail upon the seas of banking, build your bank as you would your boat, with the strength to sail safely through any storm," his father once advised. That motto is currently being severely tested.