SAO PAULO, Nov 26 (Reuters) - Defendants in a bribery investigation involving Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras are trying to move the probe to the country's Supreme Court, which has a reputation for moving slowly and letting cases drag on for years.
Lawyers for former Petrobras officials accused of diverting company funds to political parties, as well as construction executives accused of participating in the scheme, are trying to take the case away from federal judge Sergio Moro, who has a strong record sentencing money laundering cases.
Moro has presided over the case since March, ordering dozens of arrests.
The scandal at Petroleo Brasileiro SA, as the company is formally known, has shaken Brazil's economy and became the biggest crisis yet for President Dilma Rousseff, who was chairwoman of the company's board from 2003 to 2010.
The current jurisdiction argument centers on the involvement of politicians in the scheme.
Moro has instructed defendants not to name elected officials in the first stage of depositions. That way, he hopes to gather as much information as possible before the case goes to the Supreme Court, which under Brazilian law is the only court that can judge senior politicians, including congressmen.
Defense lawyers say the separation is impossible.
"This whole investigation involves people with special jurisdiction," said Tofic Simantob, a lawyer for Gerson Almada, the jailed vice president of construction firm Engevix.
Simantob, who with other lawyers filed complaints against Moro at the Supreme Court this week, told Reuters that federal police have long had evidence the scheme involved at least two congressmen.
Moro called the lawyers' argument "a fantasy" in a Wednesday court filing in Curitiba, a city in the southeastern state of Parana, where he is based.
Moro did not deny trying to keep the names of politicians out of depositions, but denied that he has names and is hiding them from the Supreme Court.
He said the probe he oversees is limited to money laundering and corruption by "Petrobras agents."
It is not clear how amenable the Supreme Court, which declined to comment, will be to the defense's argument. Moro has so far avoided the kind of procedural errors that frequently cause cases to be thrown out in Brazil.
Defense lawyers for former Petrobras executives have previously said the case should be moved to Rio de Janeiro, where the company is based.
Alexandre Lopes, the lawyer for Petrobras' former head of engineering and services Renato Duque, who was arrested earlier this month, said he had filed an appeal with a regional court to declare Moro unqualified to hear the case.
"There is nothing in Curitiba that justifies" Moro being the judge, Lopes said.
Moro claimed jurisdiction because federal police discovered the Petrobras scheme through Parana-based money changer Alberto Youssef, allegedly responsible for moving the bribes.
If the case against executives as well as politicians were transferred now, it would "simply overwhelm" the Supreme Court, said Matthew Taylor, an expert on the Brazilian legal system at American University.
Prosecutors have told Reuters the amount of paperwork in the Petrobras investigation far surpasses that in the "mensalao" or "big payment scandal," a landmark Supreme Court case that dragged on for a decade before some of the accused former politicians were sent to jail for corruption last year.
The sentencing of 25 politicians, businessmen and aides including a former chief of staff for buying congressional support was unprecedented in a country where politicians have long enjoyed impunity.
By the end of Rouseff's second term in 2018, her Worker's Party will have named 10 of the 11 justices on the court. Critics say that makes future convictions of party members less likely.
Taylor said the Petrobras scandal would likely include 150 defendants and more than 2,200 witnesses, compared to 40 defendants and 600 witnesses in the mensalao.
Moro's aides have said the probe he oversees could last at least another two years. (Reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Brian Winter and Kieran Murray)