Brazil’s top federal court, the Superior Court of Justice (STJ), removed Rio de Janeiro Gov. Wilson Witzel from his office on Friday citing extensive evidence that he and wife Helena Witzel were involved in a kickback scheme with healthcare companies.
The investigation, which became public with a raid on the governor’s office in May, follows months of Witzel struggling to contain Brazil’s ongoing coronavirus outbreak, imposing strict lockdown measures opposed by President Jair Bolsonaro.
Witzel became governor after the 2018 elections, a previously marginal candidate who rode Bolsonaro’s coattails on the ballot as an anti-establishment figure. Witzel’s relationship with Bolsonaro has since deteriorated; Bolsonaro accused him of trying to falsely implicate him in the Rio de Janeiro killing of a local leftist politician and Witzel has vocally opposed Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
Witzel will not serve as governor of Rio de Janeiro for at least 180 days, though he may permanently lose his seat if the court finds him guilty. His deputy governor, Claudio Castro, will serve in a caretaker position.
The STJ minister who ordered Witzel’s removal, Benedito Gonçalves, said evidence existed that Witzel was in charge of a “sophisticated criminal organization” stealing public money through contracts with hospitals and other public health companies. Prosecutors, the Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported, uncovered a payment to a law firm belonging to Helena Witzel of 554,200 reais (about $102,000) for services rendered, sent last year from four different healthcare corporations. No evidence exists that Witzel’s firm offered any services, leading to the conclusion that those involved sent the money to its account to launder it.
The money, prosecutors concluded, went to the Witzels’ personal expenses. Prosecutors are demanding 1.1 million reais (about $203,000) in redress.
The investigation reportedly began because officials tracking the delivery of supplies like respirators and drugs to help Chinese coronavirus victims uncovered “irregularities,” meaning that the money meant to be spent on supplies and the construction of field hospitals was far larger than what was necessary for the supplies and facilities actually built. Some of the suspect contracts involved supplies and facilities for other conditions such as cancer, as well.
O Globo published what it claimed to be emails from Witzel to his wife that appear to show him personally involved in the deal between her firm and Hospital Jardim Amália Ltda (Hinja), one of the four facilities that deposited money into the suspect account.
The investigation that resulted in Witzel’s removal involved at least 16 other individuals, as the STJ had issued 17 warrants for arrest.
Wilson Witzel’s attorney issued a statement saying he met his removal with “great surprise.”
Arrests of the governor of Rio de Janeiro for corruption are common. As the left-wing Folha de Sao Paulo noted on Friday, “of the eight governors that the state has elected since 1982, six are alive. All were implicated in some sort of corruption scheme, five were arrested at some point and one, Sérgio Cabral, is currently in prison on a nearly 300-year sentence.”
Witzel’s star rose rapidly in 2018 as Bolsonaro, as a presidential candidate, attracted voters disaffected by years of corruption scandals at the federal level. Prior to Bolsonaro, the Brazilian Congress impeached and removed socialist President Dilma Rousseff, leaving her vice president, Michel Temer, who was arrested in a corruption probe in 2019. Dilma’s predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was convicted of using public funds to buy a luxury beachfront property and sentenced to over a decade in prison.
The brewing tensions between Witzel and Bolsonaro erupted when a media report linked a doorman involved in the killing of Marielle Franco, a young left-wing Rio de Janeiro politician, to the Bolsonaro family. Prosecutors later found that the witness claiming Bolsonaro knew several of the individuals accused of organizing her killing was lying.
Bolsonaro told reporters he had “no doubt” that Witzel had spread the claim that he was involved in Franco’s shooting.
Bolsonaro later criticized the strict lockdowns Witzel imposed on residents of Rio de Janeiro state. The conservative president has been among the most vocal opponents of using lockdowns and quarantines of the presumed healthy to stop containing the virus, which spreads even from asymptomatic carriers. Both Witzel and Bolsonaro have tested positive for the virus and overcome the infection, the latter after dismissing it as a “little cold” and telling Brazilians to “take it like a man.”
Asked about Witzel’s removal from office on Friday, Bolsonaro laughed and asked, “Did you know about Rio today? … Who is your governor [now]?”