By Gabriel Stargardter
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - A lingering scandal involving Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro's son has soured his inauguration next week and tarnished the reputation of a far-right maverick who surged to victory on a vow to end years of political horsetrading.
Bolsonaro, who spent nearly 30 years in Congress, takes office on Jan. 1 after a strong electoral win that gave him a mandate to hobble violent drug gangs, cut through red tape to kick-start Brazil's economy and go after the country's corrupt political class.
But a festering scandal involving the former driver of his son, Rio de Janeiro state lawmaker and Senator-elect Flavio Bolsonaro, has clouded his big day. Jair Bolsonaro, Flavio Bolsonaro and the former driver, Fabricio Queiroz, have denied any wrongdoing.
But some critics have begun questioning the president-elect's graft-busting credentials, and asking whether the Bolsonaro political clan really represents a new type of politics in a country weary from years of corruption probes.
"Ever since this case came to light, there has been a spectacle of evasions and unconvincing explanations on the part of the Bolsonaros ... (about) an episode with relevant implications for national politics," Brazil's biggest newspaper Folha de S.Paulo said in an editorial on Thursday, the day after Queiroz sought to explain himself in an interview with a Bolsonaro-friendly TV network.
The scandal arose after Brazil's Council for Financial Activities Control (COAF) identified 1.2 million reais (241,514.7 pounds) that in 2016-17 flowed through the bank account of Queiroz, who for years was on Flavio Bolsonaro's payroll as a driver and advisor. Some payments were made to the president-elect's wife, Michelle Bolsonaro.
After citing a health crisis as his reason for failing to attend two previous appointments with prosecutors to explain the provenance of the money, Queiroz said in the SBT network interview on Wednesday that money in his account was due to a side-business of buying and selling cars.
"I'm a businessman," he said. "I make money."
Jair Bolsonaro has said the payment to his wife was Queiroz repaying a personal loan. He added that if he made a mistake by not declaring the money from Queiroz, he would rectify it with tax authorities.
Flavio Bolsonaro, who has now been called by investigators to explain the money after his former driver's no-show last week, has said that Queiroz gave him a "plausible" explanation, and that the accusations were intended to destabilise the Bolsonaro family.
In the interview, Queiroz said the money to Michelle Bolsonaro had been explained by her husband, and was to repay a loan. He denied he had been dodging investigators, and said he had failed to turn up to appointments with prosecutors because of a malignant cancer that requires immediate surgical removal.
Michelle Bolsonaro has not commented publicly on the case.
According to the COAF, some of the payments to Queiroz' bank account were made by other employees on Flavio Bolsonaro's payroll when he served as a Rio de Janeiro state lawmaker, including by Queiroz's own daughter. Many of the deposits were made on or around the same day that the state Congress paid employees, the COAF found.
It passed on the suspicious financial flows in Queiroz's account to Rio state prosecutors, who have so far failed to get the former driver to come in and explain the funds.
State prosecutors have suggested that Flavio Bolsonaro come in on Jan 10. It was not clear when Queiroz would attend.
Queiroz declined to explain why his colleagues were depositing money into his account, saying he would tell investigators.
Not all were convinced by that line of argument.
"So this is how it works: He didn't go to investigators, because he preferred to go on TV. But, once he was on TV, he said he would rather explain to investigators?" prominent journalist Malu Gaspar wrote on Twitter.
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Brad Brooks and Frances Kerry)