Congresswoman broke rules by awarding scholarship money to relatives

Looks like Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Tex., is going to be in some hot water over this:

Longtime Dallas congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson has awarded thousands of dollars in college scholarships to four relatives and a top aide’s two children since 2005, using foundation funds set aside for black lawmakers’ causes.

The recipients were ineligible under anti-nepotism rules of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which provided the money. And all of the awards violated a foundation requirement that scholarship winners live or study in a caucus member’s district.

Johnson, a Democrat, denied any favoritism when asked about the scholarships last week. Two days later, she acknowledged in a statement released by her office that she had violated the rules but said she had done so “unknowingly” and would work with the foundation to “rectify the financial situation.”

Along with Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Johnson is the latest member of the Congressional Black Caucus singled out for unethical behavior. In fact, Johnson’s problems here are directly related to a program of the Congressional Black Caucus:

Her handling of the scholarships puts a rare spotlight on the program and how it is overseen. Caucus members have great leeway in how they pick winners and how aggressively they publicize the awards. Some lawmakers promote the program online, for instance, while Johnson does not.

Philanthropy experts said such lax oversight of scholarship money doesn’t match the standards for charities.

The foundation – which is supported by private and corporate donations, not taxpayer money – provides $10,000 annually for each member of the Congressional Black Caucus to award in scholarships. Each gets to decide how many ways to split the money and whether to create a judging panel, choose personally or delegate the task.

In February, The New York Times ran a story spotlighting the Congressional Black Caucus and raised a lot of questions about the organization’s fundraising and spending. It included this choice detail:

The caucus says its nonprofit groups are intended to help disadvantaged African-Americans by providing scholarships and internships to students, researching policy and holding seminars on topics like healthy living.

But the bulk of the money has been spent on elaborate conventions that have become a high point of the Washington social season, as well as the headquarters building, golf outings by members of Congress and an annual visit to a Mississippi casino resort.

In 2008, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation spent more on the caterer for its signature legislative dinner and conference — nearly $700,000 for an event one organizer called “Hollywood on the Potomac” — than it gave out in scholarships, federal tax records show.

…and of the scholarship money being given out, we now know some of it is being misused. Waters and Rangel have suggested that they’re being targeted because of racism. One member of the Congressional Black Caucus recently told Politico that the organization was being targeted unfairly, saying there’s a “dual standard, one for most members [of Congress] and one for African-Americans.” Given the evidence, I don’t think the American public is going to think these rather legitimate ethical concerns are all about racism.

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