BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazilian federal police on Tuesday raided the residences of Rio de Janeiro’s right-wing Governor Wilson Witzel as part of a COVID-19 corruption probe, targeting one of President Jair Bolsonaro’s political foes as the pandemic sweeps the nation.
Federal prosecutors alleged Witzel, a former-ally-turned-foe of Bolsonaro, and his wife Helena led a sprawling criminal operation in which her law firm was used to receive payment from a company that won state coronavirus contracts, according to federal court documents seen by Reuters.
The spurious services undertaken by the company involved “tent assembly and disassembly services, installation of water tanks, energy generators and flooring for … field hospitals,” prosecutors said in the court documents.
In a statement, Witzel said he was innocent, and accused Bolsonaro of “interference” in the probe. He said he was “surprised and outraged” to see social media posts that suggested the president’s allies in Congress had prior knowledge of the operation, suggesting leaks and the “construction” of a false narrative against him.
“Congratulations to the federal police,” Bolsonaro said in Brasilia to reporters. “I just heard about it on the news.”
The president’s office declined to comment.
In a statement, Helena Witzel’s law firm, HW Assessoria Jurídica, said the federal police searches “found nothing that could prove the allegations.” It said that its dealings with the investigated firm were all above board. Helena Witzel lamented “that the operation was imbued with undisguised political motivation”.
The latest in a long line of Rio state governors to be snared in corruption probes, Witzel has clashed with Bolsonaro in recent weeks over how to tackle the pandemic. Bolsonaro views the former judge, known for putting snipers in police helicopters during anti-gang operations, as a re-election rival.
The probe into Witzel also comes just weeks after Bolsonaro changed the top official at the federal police amid an ugly political scrap with former Justice Minister Sergio Moro. A popular graft-fighting crusader, Moro resigned after accusing the president of trying to install his pick as the top Rio police figure to protect his family from investigations.
Police served 12 search and seizure warrants, the police statement said. There were no arrests.
The police raided the Palacio Laranjeiras, the governor’s official residence, and his personal home in the neighborhood of Grajaú. The search and seizure warrants were issued by the Superior Court of Justice (STJ), Brazil’s second-highest court.
(Reporting by Rodrigo Viga and Ricardo Brito; Writing by Ana Mano; Editing by Jason Neely, Steve Orlofsky and Cynthia Osterman)