Coronavirus corruption a new headache for Brazilian governors

. Sep 30, 2020
Coronavirus corruption new headache for Brazilian governors Hundreds of graves were dug in the Vila Formosa cemetery. Photo: BW Press/Shutterstock

Allegations of corruption linked to the misuse of the state’s coronavirus budget have led to the downfall of Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, who has been suspended from office and awaits an impeachment trial that is almost certainly going to go against him. Now, the Federal Police is zeroing in on at least six other state governors suspected of mishandling funds earmarked for the anti-Covid-19 effort. Meanwhile, investigations into the misappropriation of funds have been opened in all 27 Brazilian states.

With the arrival of the coronavirus, Congress quickly declared a nationwide state of emergency until December 2020. In practical terms, this move lifted a series of controls on public procurements, to allow for local administrations to respond to the crisis as quickly as possible, purchasing medicine and equipment, and hiring staff. However, this period of “anything goes” also offers a golden opportunity for dishonest politicians to siphon public money into their personal bank accounts.

</p> <p>So far, four governors have been directly targeted by police operations. Besides Mr. Witzel, the Feds have also gone after Wilson Lima in Amazonas, Helder Barbalho in Pará, and Carlos Moisés in Santa Catarina. Investigators believe these governors helped — or failed to prevent —&nbsp;the embezzlement of over BRL 4 billion (USD 708 million) from state coronavirus funds.</p> <h2>The latest Covid corruption scandal</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="" alt="Pará Governor Helder Barbalho" class="wp-image-50508" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Pará Governor Helder Barbalho. Photo: Ag.Pará</figcaption></figure> <p>On Tuesday, the <a href="">Federal Police</a> targeted Pará Governor Helder Barbalho —&nbsp;carrying out search and seizure operations at his home and offices, as well as <a href="">arresting</a> two members of his cabinet and one senior aide. The group is suspected of defrauding public procurements for ventilators to be used by Covid-19 patients.&nbsp;</p> <p>The equipment — which didn&#8217;t even work properly — was allegedly overpriced by nearly 90 percent, and the bidding process was considered to be rigged. Dozens of arrest orders were issued, and the courts froze Mr. Barbalho&#8217;s assets. According to Francisco Falcão, a judge on Brazil&#8217;s Superior Court of Justice, the governor was &#8220;instrumental&#8221; in the prosperity of the scheme, saying there is &#8220;robust evidence that the governor was aware and participated in the criminal enterprise.&#8221;</p> <p>Prosecutors say Mr. Barbalho is the ringleader of the ploy, and claim to have proof that he met with corrupt business owners before launching procurement processes in order to negotiate kickbacks.</p> <p>In a statement, the government of Pará claims to support &#8220;any investigation that seeks to protect public money.&#8221;</p> <h2>Corruption worsened Latin America&#8217;s coronavirus crisis</h2> <p>The coronavirus has killed over 1 million people worldwide&nbsp;— 14 percent of these <a href="">deaths occurred in Brazil</a>. According to a report by Reuters, if the city of Rio de Janeiro were its own country, it would be the global leader in deaths per 1 million inhabitants.&nbsp;</p> <p>And while inequality, misinformation, and high levels of informal labor might have been the biggest factors for Latin America to become the global epicenter of the pandemic, it is undeniable that corruption by elected officials hampered the ability of the region&#8217;s countries to respond to the outbreak more efficiently.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3871637" data-url="" aria-label=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>Investigators in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru claim that local leaders filled their pockets with public money through rigged procurement processes for materials to fight the coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, four of these five countries figure among the nations with most deaths per capita.</p> <p>Data from investigators show that nearly every single piece of material was overpriced in a number regions — including hand sanitizer and gauze pads. In their defense, most of the governors under scrutiny place the blame on private companies — whom they accuse of jacking up prices as demand grew, and insisting on receiving payments up front.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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