(Adds Safra comments, paragraphs 3,7)
By Silvio Cascione
BRASILIA, March 31 (Reuters) - Brazilian prosecutors charged Joseph Safra, ranked as the world's richest banker, in connection with an alleged scheme to pay bribes to government officials in return for waiving up to $500 million in corporate tax debts, the prosecutors' office said in a statement on Thursday.
Prosecutors accused Safra of corruption for the suspected plan to pay 15.3 million reais ($4.2 million) in bribes to tax officials in 2014, based on tapped phone calls between a Safra executive, João Inácio Puga, and tax agency officials.
A spokesman for Safra said the charges were unfounded, and there was no just cause for the legal proceedings.
Safra, the majority owner of the Brazilian bank Banco Safra SA, was not directly involved in the negotiations on the bribery plan, prosecutors said.
However, they added the phone conversations show that Puga reported to Safra on the alleged negotiations on bribing tax officials to reduce tax debts of 1.8 billion reais.
"He (Puga) limited himself to negotiating, interacting with the other people under investigation," the prosecutors said of the alleged scheme. "But the decisions were taken by (what Puga called as) the 'staff', that is, Grupo Safra's majority shareholder and president, Joseph Y. Safra. Therefore, Puga was Joseph's agent."
In an emailed messge, the Safra spokesman noted that the Safra subsidiary cited by prosecutors, JS Administradora, offered no benefit to any government official. He added JS Administradora did not receive any benefit from the tax agency.
The charges filed are a follow-up of a broader police inquiry, known as "Operation Zealots," into kickbacks by companies through lobbyists. Dozens of other Brazilian firms, including steelmaker Gerdau SA, have also been under investigation for suspected kickbacks.
Joseph Safra and his family control the São Paulo-based bank as part of a vast banking and financial conglomerate that operates in 19 countries. Forbes Magazine ranks Joseph Safra as the world's richest banker, with a fortune of about $18 billion.
In addition to "Operation Zealots," Brazil for the past two years has been gripped by the far-reaching corruption probe around state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, known as Petrobras, and major engineering conglomerates.
$1 = 3.5931 Brazilian reais Reporting by Silvio Cascione Editing by W Simon