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Weekly Report - 18 June 2020 (WR-20-24)

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BRAZIL: Governors threatened by corruption claims

Several state governors in Brazil face suspicions of corruption in their response to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. This adds yet another element of mistrust to the overall chaotic management of the pandemic in Brazil, which has been marked by conflicting information from the state and federal authorities, political bickering, and, most recently, misgivings that the federal government sought to manipulate Covid-19 data [WR-20-23].

Corruption investigations carried out by the federal police (PF) under the order of the federal public prosecutors’ office (MPF) have notably targeted Wilson Witzel, the governor of Rio de Janeiro state, and Helder Barbalho, the governor of the northern state of Pará. Police carried out raids on properties linked to Witzel in late May as part of ‘Operation Placebo’, the extension of a state-level investigation into suspicions of fraud in the contracting of services for newly built field hospitals. The investigation also implicates now former members of Witzel’s government and his wife, Helena Witzel, whose law firm signed a contract with one of the companies through which funds are suspected of having been embezzled.

Last week, on 10 June, Barbalho was a target in ‘Operation Para Bellum’, which is investigating fraud in the procurement of ventilators. The MPF believes that Barbalho was aware of the details of the Pará state government’s purchase of 400 faulty ventilators at an inflated price and through an expedited contract that was awarded without a bidding process. Barbalho has denied the accusations as well as claims that he enjoys close links with businessmen involved in the procurement process.   

In Rio, the allegations against Witzel have prompted impeachment proceedings. This was formalised on 15 June, after a symbolic vote by Rio state’s legislative assembly (Alerj) on 10 June resulted in unanimous support for the launch of impeachment proceedings. Alerj president André Ceciliano pointed out that Witzel already faced 14 impeachment requests – the one now being taking forward is based on suspicions that he is implicated in the embezzlement of public funds destined to fight the coronavirus health emergency (Witzel denies this).

Alerj deputies have this week picked members to form a special committee which will analyse the impeachment request and determine whether to accept it, after Witzel has been given an opportunity to defend himself. If the impeachment request were deemed admissible by the committee, a simple majority vote in the Alerj would then suffice to relieve Witzel of his duties.

Witzel could therefore still survive the threat of impeachment, but he finds himself politically weakened, and not only due to the corruption allegations. He won election in 2018 by aligning himself with President Jair Bolsonaro, but his relationship with Bolsonaro soured in late 2019 and he has lost the following of those still loyal to the head of state.

The discrediting of Witzel’s Covid-19 response also serves to reinforce Bolsonaro’s criticisms of state governors. Bolsonaro accuses them of being responsible for the economic crisis and accompanying unemployment after they took the decision to impose isolation measures (now being lifted) in a bid to contain the virus.

Furthermore, Barbalho’s and Witzel’s governments are not the only ones to face suspicions of wrongdoing. State or federal police and prosecutors have been investigating a range of suspected wrongdoing in at least seven states, from the mismanagement of public resources destined to the pandemic to the illegal awarding of contracts. In early May, the governor of Amazonas, Wilson Lima, survived the threat of impeachment over general mismanagement of the pandemic and the procurement of overpriced ventilators, at a time when Amazonas state’s public health system was collapsing. 

Roraima

Antônio Denarium, the governor of the northern state of Roraima, has become the latest governor to face the threat of impeachment due to the pandemic. On 17 June, federal deputy Antônio Nicoletti, a former ally of Denarium’s, filed a request for impeachment with the Roraima legislative assembly (ALE-RR), citing the governor’s failed response to the pandemic, his mismanagement of the emergency resources sent by the federal government, and holding him responsible for the collapse of Roraima’s public health system. Denarium had already faced an ultimately unsuccessful impeachment request earlier in May, following signs of irregularities and fraud in the procurement of medical equipment, including ventilators. Roraima has the second highest rate of Covid-19 infections per 100,000 inhabitants in Brazil, after Amazonas.