Brazil’s High Court of Justice removed Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel from office Friday, as police raided his official residence in a probe into accusations he stole emergency funds to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The raids also targeted the far-right governor’s wife and inner circle. Among those arrested was Pastor Everaldo, an evangelical preacher and leader of Witzel’s Christian Social Party (PSC).
Helicopters circled over the stately governor’s residence, Laranjeiras Palace, starting at dawn as federal police executed a sweeping series of search and seizure orders and arrest warrants.
The court ruling suspends Witzel, 52, from office for at least 180 days as authorities investigate claims he took a reported 274.2 million reals ($50 million) in kickbacks.
“This criminal organization acted and continues acting to embezzle and launder funds in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, sacrificing the health and even lives of millions of people,” Justice Benedito Goncalves wrote in his ruling.
Prosecutors say Witzel, an erstwhile ally of President Jair Bolsonaro, set up a slush fund for bribes as soon as he took office in January 2019.
The investigation is mainly focused on allegations his administration stole emergency funds for field hospitals, ventilators and medicine to fight the new coronavirus.
“I’m being politically massacred because there are powerful interests who don’t want me governing this state,” Witzel said in a televised address from his official residence.
“The president has made extremely serious but frivolous accusations against me because he thinks I’m going to be a presidential candidate” in Brazil’s 2022 elections.
Rio is second only to Sao Paulo in infections and deaths from the virus in Brazil, which is in turn the country hit second-hardest in the world, after the United States, with nearly 3.8 million cases and 120,000 people dead.
Allegations of massive corruption in Rio have swirled since the start of the pandemic.
Of the seven field hospitals the state contracted to respond to the health crisis, only two actually opened.
Witzel was already facing impeachment in the state legislature over the accusations.
Witzel helped Bolsonaro win an election in 2018, but has since clashed with him repeatedly, including over the governor’s insistence on imposing coronavirus lockdown measures against the president’s wishes.
Including Witzel, five of Rio de Janeiro’s past six governors have now been jailed or implicated in crimes.