RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Allegations that two evangelical pastors have used their influence with Brazil’s Education Ministry to steer federal funding to friends — and in at least one case seek a bribe — are causing a new election-year controversy for the government of President Jair Bolsonaro.
Major Brazilian news media published a series of stories and leaked audio recordings this week alleging that two pastors serving as unofficial advisers to the ministry were favoring municipalities run by their allies.
One of the pastors, the Rev. Arilton Moura, even asked for a kilogram of gold in addition to about $3,000 in exchange for funding of schools and nurseries, according to Mayor Gilberto Braga of the city of Luis Domingues, as quoted Wednesday by the newspaper Estado de S.Paulo.
The newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported this week that Education Minister Milton Ribeiro appeared to implicate Bolsonaro — who has tried to ally himself with evangelicals — in favoring the pastors by urging help for cities they back.
The newspaper posted a recording of Ribeiro telling several mayors that the government prioritized municipalities whose requests are backed by Moura and and the Rev. Gilmar Santos. Both pastors also attended the meeting, the newspaper reported.
“My priority is to first serve the municipalities that need it most and, secondly, to serve all those who are friends of Gilmar,” the voice identified as Ribeiro’s said in the recording. He added that this was “a special request of the president of the Republic.”
Neither the president’s press office nor the Education Ministry responded to requests for comment.
Ribeiro, himself a Presbyterian minister, acknowledged having met with the pastors and local mayors on several occasions and at the request of Bolsonaro, but he denied any wrongdoing in a Wednesday interview with CNN Brazil.
“I have neither the condition nor the competence to allocate anything because the criteria at the (ministry) are eminently technical,” Ribeiro said. “I may have sympathy for some pastor, or some mayor he brings along, but if he doesn’t reach that technical profile, nothing gets done.”
Ribeiro added that last year he asked the Office of the Comptroller General, the government’s anticorruption agency, to investigate possible malpractice inside the ministry.
The ministry did not respond to requests for contact information for the two pastors. Silva’s church in the state of Goias also did not respond to a request for comment and it was not immediately possible to locate Moura.
The two are members of one of the smaller of several Assemblies of God movements in Brazil.
The largest of those movements, the General Convention of the Assemblies of God in Brazil, issued a statement Tuesday distancing itself from them.
The two “do not represent and are not authorized to speak on behalf of the General Convention,” it said, adding that the convention “repudiates the practices reported in the press today … regarding the intermediation of public funds with the Ministry of Education.”
Brazil’s chief prosecutor, Augusto Aras, asked the Supreme Court to open an investigation into whether people with no official ties to the Education Ministry acted to release public resources, answering petitions from opposition lawmakers.
“While pastors negotiated bribes in GOLD to direct (the ministry)’s resources, millions of students were without access to education or dropping out of school,” opposition lawmaker Tabata Amaral alleged on Twitter.
The Federal Police will carry out the investigation.
Evangelicals are widely seen as a key faction backing Bolsonaro’s drive for reelection in October. Polls have consistently shown him trailing leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Vice President Hamilton Mourão said Wednesday that the reports should be investigated, though he described the education minister to journalists as an “honest” and “extremely polite” person.