Never too young.

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Graft Cops' Next Assignment: Brazil's Schools

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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More than a year into their biggest corruption scandal on record, you might think decent, law-abiding Brazilians would have had their fill. With the relentless drip of news about bent politicians and dodgy moguls, what are the children to think?

That's exactly what the nation's top auditors want to know.

Recently the Comptroller General, or Controladoria Geral da Uniao, in Portuguese, which scours the federal bureaucracy for crooked dealings, decided to take the conversation to the classroom.

Elementary schoolers have been asked to put down their thoughts in pictures, while middle- and high-school students are to write short essays on the "common, day-to-day Brazilian practices" that the Comptroller's office said are corroding the country's moral fiber. Contest winners will be awarded portable computers, tablets and smartphones, not to mention a civic pat on the back.

Brazil could use the help. So far, more than 100 politicians, business executives and public figures have been indicted in the so-called Car Wash case, a massive probe into graft, bid-rigging and money laundering at Petrobras, the state oil company.

All this has kept the corruption-busters busy. The Comptroller General sacked 5,125 executive branch employees between 2003 and 2014, two-thirds of them for corruption. They defenestrated another eight per week in the first six months of this year.

The point of the school initiative is not just for youngsters to rehash the Petrolao, as Brazilians call the massive scheme to siphon money from Petrobras, the state oil company, to top up political campaign war chests. Instead, the auditors hope to enlist schools to challenge their students to reflect on the suite of "small corruptions" that have led the country off the narrow path.

A recent survey found that 82 percent of professionals aged 24 or younger were inclined to accept "anti-ethical" behavior, 67 percent would accept bribes in the form of gifts and 56 percent outright money bribes, ICTS Protiviti showed

"We talk a lot about big acts of corruption crowding the headlines, but this is also a question of ethics and culture and character," Patricia Audi, transparency secretary for the Comptroller's office, told me. Getting kids to reflect on these subjects can have "a multiplier effect," she said.

Falsifying student ID cards, stealing cable TV service, buying pirated Viagra, bribing traffic police cops to avoid a ticket -- there's no shortage of examples for Brazil's aspiring scholars to pore over.

It's a world that many of them already know something about: In Brazilian universities and public schools, "cheating is extremely common," one study concluded in 2011. In 2009, the education ministry was forced to cancel a nationwide exit exam for 4 million high school students after cheats broke into the printers and leaked the answers.

Of course, it's a giant leap from gaming school exams to defrauding multibillion oil contracts. But the auditors are betting on Brazilian schoolteachers to help guide the next generation over the slippery moral slope in between.

Talk about homework. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net