By Sarah de Sainte Croix, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Following the arrest of 35 officials from the Ministry of Tourism on Tuesday last week, Federal Police investigators are reporting evidence of an embezzlement scheme worth upwards of R$15 million. The covert police investigation, known as Operation Voucher, was launched in April this year after suspicions were raised concerning contracts between the Ministry of Tourism and an NGO, or non-profit organization, the Brazilian Institute of Development for Sustainable Infrastructure (IBRASI) made before 2009.
According to the Federal Police, more than 200 police officers assisted in last Tuesday’s arrests, which saw 19 people detained and a further 16 temporarily imprisoned. Eleven arrests were made in São Paulo, seventeen in Brasilia, and seven in Amapa.
Documents and computers were seized from private and government offices and private residences, including those belonging to the Agriculture Minister, Wagner Rossi. An additional three suspects remained at large.
Amongst those arrested were Frederico da Costa, the executive secretary of the Ministry of Tourism (it’s second-highest ranking official); the secretary for the Tourism Development Program, Colbert Martins da Silva Filho; and Mário Moyses, a former president of the state tourist board Embratur.
Also detained were three of IBRASI’s most senior directors, Luiz Gustavo Machado, Jorge Kengo Fukada and Sandro Elias Saad. R$610,000 in cash was reportedly seized from Machado’s home.
A report in O Globo newspaper accuses IBRASI of operating at the center of a ring of fictional companies, headed up by a circle of associates with business or family connections, to whom the NGO subcontracted government assignments which were never realized.
One of the contracts at the center of the controversy was R$4.4 million deal given to IBRASI to train tour guides in the state of Amapa, of which a suspected R$3 million was embezzled.
Deputy Fátima Pelaes, who authorized the transaction, was implicated in the frauds yesterday for the first time since the arrests were made. Wladimir Furtado, owner of Conectur, one of the companies under investigation, revealed to O Estado de São Paulo newspaper that she had propositioned him to act as a cover in a deal worth R$2.5 million.
Federal Police have also uncovered a series of handwritten invoices sent to IBRASI by two separate subcontractors, Barbalho Reis (a communications and consulting firm) and Sinc (a human resources company) which they believe to be fraudulent. The invoices from both companies were completed in the same handwriting.
Barbalho Reis also produced an erroneous report about a project in Paraná that was supposed to have taken place in Amapa. Police later discovered that the managing directors of the two companies are brothers, Humberto da Silva Gomes (Barbalho Reis) and Hugo Leornardo Silva Gomes (Sinc).
This latest scandal is the third in a series of corruption charges to blight Rousseff’s young government in recent months. The first was the resignation of Chief of Staff, Antonio Palocci, in June, and the second was that of Transport Minister, Alfredo Nascimento, in July, both on charges of corruption.
The Federal Police have said that the suspects in this latest scandal could be charged with criminal associations, fraud and embezzlement. If convicted, each of them could face up to twelve years in jail.
Ideli Salvatti, government Minister for Institutional Relations, said, “We are waiting for a final report from the police. The government’s position is clear: anyone involved in wrongdoing should be punished.”