By Gram Slattery and Ricardo Brito
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The office of Brazil's top prosecutor has decided to keep the country's famed Car Wash anti-corruption task force active through Jan. 31, it said in a statement on Wednesday, in an at least temporary victory for the embattled group of prosecutors.
The Car Wash task force, based in the southern city of Curitiba, is responsible for hundreds of convictions of powerful businessmen and politicians throughout Brazil, who for decades were thought untouchable.
It began its work in 2014, focusing on contracting graft at state-run oil company Petrobras, though its scope quickly expanded. Presidents, executives and major companies throughout Latin America and beyond have since been implicated in sprawling corruption schemes uncovered by the investigators.
But many leftists have grown wary of Car Wash, in part because its prosecutors helped jail popular former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, while a series of leaked conversations last year raised questions about whether investigators were cutting corners to secure prosecutions. Corruption probes into family members of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro have made some conservatives suspicious of efforts to fight graft as well.
That had left the future of Car Wash in doubt, even as its work remains popular among Brazilians.
Prosecutor-General Augusto Aras had not previously said whether he would renew Car Wash's mandate, which was set to expire on Thursday.
In the Wednesday statement, the prosecutor-general's office said it was important to institutionalize anti-graft investigations throughout all of Brazil. It did not say whether Car Wash's mandate would be extended beyond January, raising the possibility that the task force could be abandoned early next year.
Carlos Fernando Lima, a former member of the task force, warned that ending Car Wash in January would result in severe disruptions to ongoing investigations.
"If (Aras) decides to effectively end the task force in January, we're going to have serious problems with a bottleneck of work," he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Leslie Adler and Stephen Coates)