RIO DE JANEIRO — The governor of Rio de Janeiro state was suspended from office Friday by a Brazilian court as part of a corruption probe into alleged kickbacks amid the state's disastrously chaotic response to the coronavirus pandemic.
It also illustrated how the coronavirus pandemic in Brazil, a country with a lengthy and notorious history of corruption, has been a bonanza for grifters and fraudsters. As states emptied their coffers to combat the gravest health crisis in national history, which has killed more than 118,000 Brazilians, officials across the country saw an opportunity to get rich, prosecutors allege.
Prosecutors charge that Witzel was at the “top of the pyramid” of a corrupt scheme of bribes and kickbacks for government contracts that included projects aimed at combating the coronavirus in Brazil, which has the world’s second-highest number of confirmed cases at nearly 3.8 million.
In the global struggle against the coronavirus, corruption has grown into one of the most nettlesome obstacles. Officials from South Africa to Colombia have been accused of stealing money as their countries swelled health care budgets to meet the crisis.
The corruption allegations have been particularly stark in Rio, where the pandemic has left nearly 16,000 people dead. Prosecutors allege officials maintained what they described as a “little bribe box,” where organizations could channel illicit funds.
One of the suspected schemes involved the construction of field hospitals intended to meet the surge in coronavirus patients. The former Rio state health minister, Edmar Santos, was arrested in July and is now reported to be cooperating with authorities.
“Politicians and public servants at the state health ministry were illicitly paid monthly by a criminal organization,” prosecutors said in a statement.
Witzel, who denies the charges, was initially suspended for six months under an order signed by Superior Court of Justice minister Benedito Gonçalves. Witzel also faces impeachment proceedings.
The probe also moved beyond Witzel, who rose to power alongside Bolsonaro on the promise of cracking down on corruption and crime. Authorities, acting on a request approved by the court, arrested a close aide to Witzel and
searched a property of Witzel’s wife, Helena Witzel. Also apprehended was Everaldo Pereira, an evangelical pastor and Brazilian politician who in 2016 baptized Bolsonaro in the River Jordan.
The Witzels have for months denied any wrongdoing, alleging the investigation was politically orchestrated by Bolsonaro, a bitter political rival. “Until my final days, I will not allow this president, whom I unfortunately helped elect, become another dictator in Latin America,” Witzel announced when the probe began.
Witzel’s wife is accused of illegally skimming off $100,000, but not all related to the coronavirus pandemic. Investigators found more than $1 million in cash inside the home of the former health secretary Santos.
Pereira, the pastor, said in a statement that he would cooperate with authorities and “reiterates his faith in the justice system.”
“The defense of the governor received with great surprise the decision to relieve him of his charge, taken unilaterally and with such gravity,” Witzel wrote on Twitter. “The defense team is waiting to access case documents to take appropriate action. #TeamWitzel.”
At dawn on Friday morning, federal police arrived to the Laranjeiras Palace, the seat of power in Rio de Janeiro, to remove Witzel. The governor expressed shock.
A former judge with presidential aspirations, Witzel pledged integrity when taking control of a state that has long been hobbled by corruption and mounting violence. In response, he unleashed a military-esque assault on criminal networks inside the state’s poorest communities, leaving thousands of people dead and transforming some favelas into war zones.
Despite agreeing with Bolsonaro on most policies, Witzel became a fierce critic of the president. The rifts increased after the arrival of the coronavirus. While Bolsonaro urged people to maintain their routines, Witzel shut down everything but nonessential businesses, then promised a rapid escalation in health care capacity.
Witzel glorified the violence, flying over favelas in a helicopter, commandeering a tank as it rumbled through the streets of Rio and encouraging police to kill perceived criminals.
“The police will do the right thing,” he said early in his tenure in 2018. “Aim at their little heads and fire! To not do it would be wrong.”
The government said there would be seven field hospitals, and supplies of ventilators and protective health equipment. But many of those promises never materialized. Those that did arrived far too late.
Only two of the seven proposed field hospitals opened. The public health system lacked even basic of things. Some patients spent their final hours waiting on broken chairs for an open bed. Others could not get treatment. The number of coronavirus patients awaiting treatment at one point nearly reached 1,000 people.
The ensuing human misery in the state has been overwhelming. If it was a country, Rio de Janeiro by itself would have the 13th most deaths. It would have the second highest death rate by 1,000 residents, according to an analysis by Brazilian researchers.
This story has been updated to correct the location where investigators found more than $1 million.
Heloísa Traiano contributed to this report.