BRASILIA, Brazil — A former Brazilian education minister under President Jair Bolsonaro was arrested on Wednesday in a federal police corruption probe, further damaging the far-right leader’s re-election bid.
Milton Ribeiro left the post in March after Brazilian media reported leaked conversations he had with mayors who were allegedly favored by the federal government in the agency’s budget allocation. He was appointed to this position in July 2020.
Leaked conversations reported by Brazilian media showed in March that Ribeiro had two evangelical pastors as unofficial intermediaries approaching mayors who could help Bolsonaro’s campaign. The former minister is himself an evangelical pastor.
Both favored municipalities ruled by their allies and demanded bribes, including a kilo of gold, according to reports.
Ribeiro is charged with influence peddling, bribery, prevarication and administrative advocacy – meaning that under Brazilian law he could have used his ministerial post to promote private interests.
The former minister denied any wrongdoing when the scandal broke. His lawyer, Daniel Bialski, said in a statement that Ribeiro’s arrest was “unjust, unjustified and unnecessary”.
Bolsonaro, who at the time said he would “put his face on fire” for Ribeiro, changed his narrative after his former minister was jailed.
“If he is guilty, he will pay,” Bolsonaro said in a radio interview. “Let him answer for his actions. I pray to God there is no problem. But if there is a problem, the federal police are investigating. It’s a sign that I’m not interfering with the feds because that would defile me, of course.
The Brazilian president faces an uphill battle for re-election. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leads all polls for the October vote. He hopes to resume the work he did between 2003 and 2010.
Mario Sérgio Lima, senior Brazil analyst for Medley Global Advisors, said the accusations against Ribeiro again put Bolsonaro in a defensive position and hurt his chances with conservative voters who were not part of his die-hard base and had the used to see its anti-corruption narrative as a plus.
“These voters could be demobilized by this. And the more absentee voters there are on Election Day, the better the chance of the favorite winning the election without a runoff,” Lima said in a phone interview. “It could also have another impact: moderate allies could drift away from him. He lost a big talking point against Lula.
In one of the recordings, Ribeiro told the mayors that Bolsonaro had asked him to give priority to mayors appointed by the two clerics. The Brazilian president has denied any connection to the case.
In a statement posted on its website on Wednesday, the Brazilian Federal Police said 13 search and seizure warrants had been issued and five people were under arrest in the case. Police did not say whether the two pastors mentioned in the tapes were imprisoned.
Conservative lawmaker Marco Feliciano, a close ally of Bolsonaro and himself an evangelical pastor, said on Twitter that one of two religious leaders linked to Ribeiro had been jailed.
“The arrest of Pastor Gilmar Santos, a man for whom I have always had respect and admiration as a preacher, causes us deep embarrassment. All we can do is wait for the investigations,” Feliciano said.
Many of the president’s opponents have said on their social media that they will push for a congressional investigation into Brazil’s education ministry spending under Bolsonaro.
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.