Pandemic probe: Brazilian governor targeted in police raid

By MARCELO DE SOUSA for the Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The governor of Brazil’s Amazonas state was targeted by a police raid on Tuesday over allegations of corruption related to COVID-19 spending.

Federal police ordered the preventive detention of eight people and raided more than a dozen addresses of people linked to Gov. Wilson Lima as part of an investigation into alleged fraud in the purchase of ventilators for treating COVID-19, the federal prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

The state in the northern region of the Amazon rainforest has been one of the nation’s hardest-hit. Its capital, Manaus, was devastated by the virus, with patients turned away from full intensive-care units, scores of people dying at home and the city burying coffins in mass graves to keep up with the mounting death toll. Manaus’ mayor was hospitalized with COVID-19 this week.ADVERTISEMENT

Lindora Araujo, a deputy prosecutor-general, said in the statement that there is a “criminal organization that, installed in the structures of Amazonas state’s government, makes use of the situation of calamity to obtain illicit financial gains.” The statement said Gov. Lima was targeted by the searches and an asset freeze.

The state government of Amazonas said it will wait for more information before commenting and that Gov. Lima was in the capital of Brasilia for work.

Lima’s administration had already come under fire for buying ventilators at quadruple the market price from a wine importer and distributor. The breathing machines were deemed inadequate for use on coronavirus patients by the regional council of medicine and the Amazonas’ doctors’ union. Lima previously denied any wrongdoing.

Public prosecutors said the purchase of the ventilators revealed a process by which the wine distributor acted as intermediary for the purchase from a health equipment supplier, adding some $90,000 to the cost and then returning the full amount of the sale to the company.

The judge who ordered the raid froze $500,000 in the accounts of 13 people and companies, prosecutors said.

Manaus’ Mayor Arthur Virgílio Neto tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, and as of Tuesday was receiving non-invasive ventilation in a hospital, City Hall said in a statement.

Lima is the third governor to be investigated in relation to suspect medical expenditures during the pandemic.

On May 26, police searched the residence of Rio de Janeiro state Gov. Wilson Witzel as part of an investigation into alleged irregularities in contracts awarded for the construction of emergency field hospitals. Rio legislators voted nearly unanimously to begin impeachment proceedings against the governor.

Also, the government palace of Helder Barbalho, governor of Pará state, was raided June 10 as part of an investigation into alleged fraud in the purchase of ventilators for treating Covid-19.

Witzel and Barbalho have criticized President Jair Bolsonaro’s rejection of quarantine measures to contain spread of the coronavirus. Lima is a Bolsonaro ally.