The former minister denied any wrongdoing when the scandal broke. His lawyer, Daniel Bialski, said in a statement that Ribeiro’s arrest was “unjust, uncalled for and unnecessary.”
Bolsonaro, who at the time said he would “put his face to the 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 that there is no problem. But if there is a problem, the federal police are investigating. It’s a sign that I don’t interfere with the federal police because it would be staining me, obviously.”
Brazil’s president is facing an uphill battle for his reelection. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leads all polls for October’s vote. He hopes to return to the job he had between 2003-2010.
Mario Sérgio Lima, a senior Brazil analyst for Medley Global Advisors, said the accusations against Ribeiro put Bolsonaro yet again in a defensive position and hurt his chances with conservative voters who are not in his hardcore base and used to see his anti-corruption narrative as a plus.
“These voters could be demobilized by this. And the more absent voters on election day, the better are the chances of the front-runner winning the election without a runoff,” Lima said in a phone interview. “It could also bring another impact: Moderate allies might step away from him. He has lost a big talking point against Lula.”
In one of the recordings, Ribeiro told mayors that Bolsonaro had asked him to prioritize mayors appointed by the two clerics. Brazil’s president denied any connection with the case.
In a statement released on its website on Wednesday, Brazil’s federal police said that 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 recordings have been jailed.
Conservative lawmaker Marco Feliciano, a close ally of Bolsonaro’s and an Evangelical pastor himself, said on Twitter that one of the two religious leaders linked to Ribeiro had been jailed.
“The arrest of pastor Gilmar Santos, a man I always had respect and admiration for as a preacher, causes profound embarrassment for us. All we can do is to wait for the investigations,” Feliciano said.
Many adversaries of the president said in their social media channels they will push for a congressional inquiry on the spending of Brazil’s education ministry under Bolsonaro.
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.