Rio de Janeiro’s Governor Wilson Witzel has been suspended for allegedly running a corruption scheme that not only may have defrauded the state at the height of its coronavirus response but is also startlingly similar to that run by a former governor.
On August 28, Witzel was suspended from his post for an initial 180 days by Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice (Superior Tribunal de Justiça – STJ) while an investigation takes place. Witzel and a ring of associates are believed to have embezzled public funds, destined to build field hospitals around the state of Rio de Janeiro to help fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
Additionally, prosecutors found evidence that equipment for the same field hospitals was deliberately paid for at inflated prices, with the same group of suspects taking a cut.
The investigation has targeted many of Witzel’s closest allies. His wife, Helena Witzel, is also under investigation while Rio’s former health secretary, Edmar Santos, and a leading evangelical preacher and politician, Everaldo Dias Pereira, are among those arrested.
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Witzel received over 554,000 reais ($102,000) from a number of healthcare companies involved in developing field hospitals, with the money having been paid to his wife’s law firm between August 2019 and May 2020, according to a statement from the Attorney General’s Office. While no charges have been pressed against Witzel, prosecutors believe these funds were likely kickbacks given by the companies chosen to build the hospitals.
Having searched the couple’s records and offices, prosecutors found that Witzel had sent field hospital contracts to his wife by email and that Helena had transferred important sums of money to her husband, shortly after receiving funds from the healthcare firms.
Other allegations are swirling around the way the Rio de Janeiro government handled the coronavirus crisis. A former undersecretary of health, Gabriel Neves, was arrested in May and interrogated over the use of 1 billion reais ($185.5 million), given to companies to buy ventilators, masks and COVID-19 tests, but without any form of public bidding. His testimony allegedly reinforced suspicions against Witzel.
This investigation is part of Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato), a sweeping anti-corruption drive in Brazil that has seen a great number of influential politicians and business figures jailed, including former presidents, influential executives, and former governors of Rio de Janeiro.
A previous governor, Sergio Cabral (2007-2014), received his 14th criminal sentence in August and is now facing almost 300 cumulative years in prison.
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For a governor to allegedly defraud his state’s healthcare system during a pandemic that has killed over 120,000 Brazilians to date is shocking. To reportedly do so using the same type of kickback scheme that brought down Cabral would have been unwise.
On August 28, the Operation Car Wash coordinator in Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo El Hage, said prosecutors investigating Witzel felt they were taking a “trip down memory lane,” given the similarities with Cabral’s case.
“We were revisiting different facts we have already investigated, just with other people,” he said in a statement to the press.
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Cabral was first sentenced in 2017 after being found guilty of receiving kickbacks for granting building contracts to specific companies, including the renovation of Rio’s iconic Maracanã football stadium and the expansion of the city’s subway. Since then, he has faced a cavalcade of sentences for corruption, money laundering, criminal association, tax evasion. Most relevantly to Witzel’s case, he was found guilty in January 2020 of being part of a corruption scheme involving kickbacks, price-gouging and illicit tenders within Rio’s healthcare system.
The similarities between Cabral’s proven scheme and the one reportedly involving Witzel do not stop there. According to a roundup by Globo, in both cases, law firms were used to receive the illicit funds, some of the money was laundered in neighboring Uruguay and well-established security companies were used to move the cash.
Astonishingly, Witzel is the fifth governor of Rio in a row to be investigated or sentenced for corruption charges. And the series may not end with him since the man replacing him, in an interim capacity, deputy governor Claudio Castro, is also under investigation along with Witzel.