By Sergio Spagnuolo
CURITIBA, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazilian prosecutors presented formal charges on Friday against the chief executive of Latin America's largest engineering firm and other senior executives detained last month in a landmark investigation meant to show that the country's elite are not above the law.
Marcelo Odebrecht, the third-generation chief executive of the family-run Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht SA, was charged with corruption, money laundering and criminal conspiracy.
"Today we take yet another important step in combating impunity," prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol said at a news conference.
The prosecutors say Odebrecht knew his firm participated in, and possibly led what they call a cartel of engineering firms that overcharged state-run oil firm Petrobras and bribed executives and politicians, many whom are in President Dilma Rousseff's coalition government.
They will seek 6.7 billion reais ($2 billion) in damages from Odebrecht SA, Dallagnol said. He said 870 million reais have been recovered in the 16-month-old probe to date.
Top executives of Brazil's second-largest engineering firm, Andrade Gutierrez, were also among the 22 people charged.
Odebrecht's detention in Operation "Erga Omnes," which means "For Everyone" in Latin, raised the stakes of the investigation focused on Petroleo Brasileiro SA, as Petrobras is formally known.
Odebrecht's lawyers called his arrest illegal and unnecessary and appealed for his release.
Marcelo Odebrecht's personal ties to former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva threaten to bring the scandal closer to the ruling Workers' Party, whose treasurer is in jail and standing trial for corruption.
Rousseff is not under investigation, but her approval rating sank to 7.7 percent, a poll showed this week, while 62.8 percent want her impeached over corruption at Petrobras, which she chaired before becoming president in 2011.
Federal judge Sergio Moro issued a second preventive detention order for Marcelo Odebrecht and four other Odebrecht executives on Friday, citing new evidence that he said would make releasing them a risk to public order.
Cooperation with Swiss authorities had resulted in "material proof," Moro wrote, of deposits from accounts controlled by Odebrecht SA to all five former Petrobras executives implicated in the investigation.
Moro also cited evidence that Odebrecht executives had tried to hamper the investigation.
Earlier this week, police released messages found on Marcelo Odebrecht's cell phone with instructions to "sanitize paraphernalia MF and RA."
Moro said the initials apparently suggest two of Odebrecht's subordinates, Marcio Faria and Rogerio Araujo, destroy evidence. More alarming, he said, was another message: "Work to stop/annul (PF dissidents)." PF stands for federal police.
(Writing and additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Leslie Adler)