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Three Brazilian senators formally accused President Jair Bolsonaro of malfeasance before the Supreme Court Monday over allegations he failed to have a top ally investigated for suspicions of massive corruption in the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines.
The criminal complaint comes after a Senate commission investigating the administration's pandemic response uncovered explosive accusations last week that Bolsonaro knew about suspected corruption in Brazil's $300-million deal for Indian-made vaccine Covaxin and failed to intervene.
"I filed a criminal complaint today with the Supreme Court because of the serious accusation that the president took no action after being notified of a gigantic corruption scheme at the health ministry," said opposition Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, the commission's deputy chair.
A criminal case against Bolsonaro before the Supreme Court could see him removed from office -- though Prosecutor General Augusto Aras, an ally, would have to bring charges.
More immediately, the case risks damaging Bolsonaro politically at a time when his support is dwindling and polls place him far behind leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva heading into elections next year.
- 1,000% overbilling -
The allegations emerged when a Singapore-based firm now suspected of being a shell company billed the Brazilian health ministry $45 million for yet-to-be-delivered doses of Covaxin, which did not even have regulatory approval in Brazil.
That raised red flags for a health ministry official named Luis Ricardo Miranda.
He refused to sign off on the payment, given that Brazil's contract for Covaxin did not mention any firm in Singapore and said payment was to be made on delivery.
Miranda told the Senate inquiry his superiors at the ministry exerted "atypical, excessive" pressure on him to approve the payment.
He took his concerns to his brother, Luis Miranda, a congressman close to Bolsonaro, who arranged a meeting for them with the president.
Congressman Miranda testified Friday that Bolsonaro told them at the March 20 meeting he suspected the alleged corruption scheme was the work of Ricardo Barros, a powerful lawmaker who is head of Bolsonaro's coalition in the lower house.
Congressman Miranda said Bolsonaro told him he would order the police to investigate, but never did.
Other irregularities in Brazil's Covaxin deal soon emerged, forcing the administration to cancel it as prosecutors opened an investigation.
According to newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo, Bharat Biotech, the vaccine's manufacturer, initially quoted a price of $1.34 a dose.
But Brazil agreed to pay $15 a dose, more than for any other vaccine it purchased.