(Adds Salles comment and details of U.S. role in probe)
By Lisandra Paraguassu, Ricardo Brito and Jake Spring
BRASILIA, May 19 (Reuters) - Brazilian police on Wednesday searched properties connected to Environment Minister Ricardo Salles and other officials in a probe of allegations they allowed illegal exports of timber from the Amazon region to the United States and Europe.
Salles has been leading U.S.-Brazil talks https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/exclusive-brazil-needs-10-blnyear-aid-carbon-neutrality-by-2050-minister-says-2021-04-16 over funding to protect the Amazon jungle, the world's largest rainforest, which is under threat from logging and fires set to clear land for farming.
Police were acting on a ruling from Supreme Court Justice Alexandre Moraes. The judge reversed rule changes that officials made to permit the exports retroactively and granted access to Salles' bank and tax records.
Salles told reporters in Brasilia that the judge's order was based on a misunderstanding. He defended the Environment Ministry and environmental regulator Ibama, saying they acted within the law and cooperated with other authorities.
In the court documents, police said that the environmental officials had favored the exporting companies instead of the public interest and authorities were looking for possible evidence of corruption and contraband.
The ruling details extensive cooperation between Brazilian police and American authorities. A U.S. embassy official alerted the police to irregularities in paperwork for timber shipped from the Amazon to the state of Georgia.
U.S. border authorities stopped shipments in December 2019 and January 2020, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requested more information from Brazilian agency Ibama.
Ibama agents initially told U.S. authorities the shipments were illegal then senior officials at the Brazilian agency overruled the agents. Two more shipments without proper paperwork went to Belgium and Denmark, according to court documents.
In February 2020, Salles and Ibama chief Eduardo Bim met with representatives of some of the companies responsible for the exports.
Bim then loosened regulations for exporting wood, making them effective retroactively for the shipments, over outcry from junior analysts at the agency.
Reuters reported https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-environment-lumber-exclusive/exclusive-brazil-exported-thousands-of-shipments-of-unauthorized-wood-from-amazon-port-idUSKBN20R15X in March 2020 that there were far more shipments than the few caught at the U.S. border, with thousands of cargoes of wood exported from the Amazon without the usual authorization.
The judge ruled that Bim and other officials should be suspended during the investigation, court documents showed. Salles was not included in that order.
Bim did not respond to a request for comment. The Environment Ministry and Ibama declined to comment immediately.
Federal police said earlier they were executing 35 search and seizure warrants in the capital Brasilia and the states of Para and Sao Paulo.
Four people with direct knowledge of the police operation told Reuters that Salles was among those targeted.
A growing chorus of environmental advocates and sustainability-focused investors have demanded that Salles be removed as minister for his efforts to roll back environmental protections in the country.
Last year, a video of a cabinet meeting showed Salles saying that the government should loosen environmental regulations while the public was distracted by COVID-19. (Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu, Ricardo Brito and Jake Spring Additional reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro Writing by Jake Spring Editing by Brad Haynes, Paul Simao, Alexandra Hudson and Cynthia Osterman)
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