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Brazil: public accusations of corruption

Did a reading program in Sao Paulo's public schools see its funds frozen because its founder refused to pay a bribe?

Girls at the Professor Carlos Pasquale school in the poor Itaim Paulista neighborhood, where students in the "I Deserve Success" program answered online questions about books donated to the school. (Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Most Brazilians take it as a given: Their government is plagued by corruption. The latest scandal hit this month, featuring video that showed Federal District Governor Jose Arruda and his allies stuffing money into pockets, bags and even socks.

But though high-level scandals occasionally provide a lurid peek into greed and favor-trading at the top, lower-level shakedowns, payoffs and kickbacks are presumably far more common, and less likely to be exposed. Those involved often see more risk in coming forward than playing the game.

That makes Henrique Flory, a 42-year-old businessman and social entrepreneur, a rare case. He is accusing the Sao Paulo Secretariat of Culture of shaking him down for money to keep a reading program he founded in the Sao Paulo public schools alive, and burying the program when he would not pay.

The stakes are high, not just for the program, but for Flory. When, in September 2008, he complained in a private letter to Joao Sayad, the secretary of culture, about what had happened, the official he accused, Ronaldo Bianchi, quickly filed a defamation suit against Flory. Flory says more trouble could come from speaking publicly about the accusation, but he wants to set an example.

“There are no more corrupt people in the United States than in Brazil,” said Flory, “but the system here manages to create a sensation of impunity, and the others accept it.”

He is also fighting back legally. The Public Ministry, an independent state agency with prosecutorial powers, has opened an investigation into the case, though not about the shakedown, for which there is no hard proof. In late September, after reviewing evidence provided by Flory, it began an inquiry about what followed: the abrupt halt of funding to Flory’s programs, with little or no explanation to him.

In a series of interviews with GlobalPost, Flory laid out his case against the secretariat, providing copies of government documents to back up his story. GlobalPost also reviewed documents at the Public Ministry.

A spokesman for the secretariat, Ciro Bonilha, said the department would not comment on the case and instead would await the ruling of the Public Ministry. He also declined to answer questions about department procedure and the transparency of the funding process, or grant interviews with any of the officials involved or mentioned in this article. Furthermore, he offered no explanation as to why the secretariat refused to respond, as legally required, to the Public Ministry’s detailed request for information about the case. (The deadline passed well over a month ago.)

In September 2007, Flory founded the Brazilian Institute for Merit Incentives to give public school kids books, and a reason to read them. Its “I Deserve Success” program started 14 projects in 103 schools through which corporate sponsors paid for books about subjects like career planning, drug use and adolescence, and funded motivational visits to the schools by speakers, actors and sometimes the authors themselves. (The books mostly came, at a sharp discount, from Flory’s own publishing house, Arte e Ciencia.) Students could win prizes for themselves and their schools by going online to answer questions and perform tasks related to the books.