Arrest of Rio governor adds to state's fame for corruption

The governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro was arrested on Thursday for allegedly taking about $10 million in bribes since 2007, the latest in a string of corruption arrests of senior political figures.

Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezao was taken into custody by federal police at the governor's palace early in the morning in an operation named "Wolf's Mouth." He was Rio's deputy governor between 2007 and 2014 and then was elected to the top job four years ago.

The arrest of Pezao gives the state of Rio, one of the most important in Latin America's largest nation, a dubious distinction: All elected governors since 1998 have been jailed at different points for corruption. Numerous other state politicians have also been accused of graft, turning the state into a symbol of rampant corruption.

The plundering of state coffers made a recent recession particularly painful in Rio, which is still in a state of financial crisis two years after the city hosted the Summer Olympics.

Pezao's arrest follows a plea bargain by Carlos Miranda, a former adviser to former Gov. Sergio Cabral, who was Pezao's superior from 2007 to 2014. Miranda testified that Pezao received thousands of dollars in bribes each month.

Cabral himself was jailed in 2016 and was sentenced to 14 years for corruption the following year. Later in 2017, Cabral was sentenced to an additional 45 years for embezzlement.

Authorities said Pezao took part in the corruption under Cabral, and then took over leadership of the scheme when he became governor.

"This criminal organization continues to be active" said Attorney General Raquel Dodge told journalists in the capital of Brasilia.

According to investigators, Pezao collected a "tax" of up to 8 percent of contracts awarded by the state.

Besides Pezao, arrest warrants were also issued for eight others connected to the governor, including his secretary of public works, an economic adviser and Pezao's nephew.

Pezao was accused of criminal organization, money laundering and corruption. After being processed at police headquarters, he was taken to a jail in the neighboring city of Niteroi.

The governor's attorney did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Vice Gov. Francisco Dornelles, who will take over, told Globo News the arrest was a "surprise" and a form of "violence against Pezao."

Pezao, whose term ends Dec. 31, was the latest high-profile politician to be caught up in the so-called "Car Wash" investigation into bribes from construction and other companies that was launched in 2014.

Investigators uncovered a scheme in which construction companies were awarded inflated contracts and then paid millions of dollars in kickbacks to politicians and other officials. The scheme, which included billions of dollars in bribes over the course of more than a decade, is considered the largest corruption scandal in Latin America, and possibly worldwide.

Scores of businessmen and politicians have been convicted and jailed, including former Odebrecht CEO Marcelo Odebrecht and ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Corruption was a dominating theme during the nation's recent election, with President-elect Jair Bolsonaro vowing to crack down of graft.


Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese contributed from Sao Paulo.