A Brazilian former education minister accused of influence peddling, allegedly at the request of President Jair Bolsonaro, was arrested Wednesday, police and a defense lawyer said.
Milton Ribeiro resigned in March over allegations that he channeled public funds to allies of two influential Evangelical pastors at Bolsonaro's "special request."
Newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo revealed an audio recording of Ribeiro saying he gave priority in deciding school-funding requests to municipalities governed by "friends" of the pastors.
One mayor reportedly said he had been asked for a kilo of gold in exchange for having his school-funding request cleared.
The claims triggered calls from opposition lawmakers for Ribeiro and Bolsonaro to be investigated.
Bolsonaro, a conservative Catholic, won the presidency in 2018 with solid backing from Brazil's powerful Evangelical Christian movement.
He is keen to keep the Evangelical vote as he seeks reelection in October, trailing in the polls to leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Bolsonaro and Ribeiro, himself a Presbyterian pastor, have denied wrongdoing.
"Based on documents, testimony and the final report of the preliminary investigation... possible indications of criminal practice in the granting of public budgets were identified," Brazilian police said in a statement.
Ribeiro's arrest, it said, was the result of an operation across four Brazilian states Wednesday morning to dismantle a criminal network, with officers armed with five arrest warrants and 13 search warrants.
He risks a sentence of between two and five years for influence peddling and two to 12 years for corruption, the police said.
Ribeiro's lawyer Daniel Bialski in a statement described his client's arrest as "unjust" and "indisputably unnecessary."
The Ministry of Education confirmed its premises were searched on Wednesday and said it intended to cooperate with investigators.
In March, Bolsonaro defended Ribeiro and called the claims "cowardly."
On Wednesday, the president appeared to distance himself from his former minister.
"Let him answer for his actions, I pray to God that he has no problem. But if he does, it shows that I have no influence on the police," the far-right president told the Itaitiaia radio station.
"I have 23 ministers, about a hundred secretaries of state... If someone does something wrong, will they blame me?" he added.
Ribeiro, 64, took office in July 2020 -- the third education minister in the cabinet of Bolsonaro, whose government was shaken by an avalanche of resignations and dismissals.
© 2022 AFP