Joe Anderson, the Labour mayor of Liverpool, was arrested on Friday along with four others as part of a probe into building and development contracts in the city.
Merseyside police confirmed they had detained five men as part of an “ongoing investigation” but did name any of them.
Two people familiar with the situation have told the Financial Times that Mr Anderson was one of those arrested. The Liverpool Echo was the first media outlet to name the mayor.
Mr Anderson, 62, was arrested on Friday morning on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation. Two other men are under suspicion for the same allegations, while a further two were arrested on suspicion of witness intimidation alone. They are aged between 25 and 72 and all live in the Merseyside area.
Mr Anderson was one of England’s first directly elected mayors in 2012 and previously held the post of leader of Liverpool city council since 2010. Labour declined to comment but party sources confirmed that Mr Anderson had been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.
Last year he won the Labour nomination to run for a third term in May’s elections, which were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. He came to national prominence during the Covid-19 crisis after overseeing in Liverpool the country’s first mass testing programme, working closely with the central government in Westminster and the armed forces.
Coronavirus cases in the city, which in October were among the highest in the UK, have dropped more than two-thirds since the programme began on November 6, coinciding with a month-long national lockdown.
When lockdown ended on December 2, the city was pushed down into the second tier of restrictions having entered in Tier 3, the highest level. Mr Anderson’s brother died from Covid-19 in October.
A Liverpool city council spokesperson said: “Liverpool city council is co-operating with Merseyside police in relation to its ongoing investigation. We do not comment on matters relating to individuals.”
In a statement, Merseyside police said: “Five people have been arrested by detectives today [Friday] in connection with offences of bribery and witness intimidation as part of an investigation into building and development contracts in Liverpool. The arrests are part of an ongoing investigation.”
Those arrested included a 62-year-old man, from the Old Swan area of the city on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation, the police said. A 33-year-old man, from West Derby, and a 46-year-old man from Ainsdale, were also arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation.
The force also said they had arrested a 25-year-old man, from Ormskirk, and a 72-year-old man, from Aigburth, on suspicion of witness intimidation.
“Those arrested have been taken to police stations across Merseyside where they will be questioned by detectives,” the police added.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard