Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson Violated Rules, Steered Scholarships to Relatives

Todd J. Gillman and Christy Hoppe, Dallas Morning News, August 30, 2010

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.”

Initially, she said, “I recognized the names when I saw them. And I knew that they had a need just like any other kid that would apply for one.” Had there been more “very worthy applicants in my district,” she added, “then I probably wouldn’t have given it” to the relatives.

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.

Johnson, a former chairwoman of the caucus who has served on the board that oversees the foundation, said she wasn’t fully aware of the program rules and emphasized that she didn’t “personally benefit.”

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The program “operates on an honor system,” so the foundation hadn’t known that money went to Johnson’s relatives, she [Amy Goldson, the foundation attorney] said. {snip}

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“It is inappropriate for a lawmaker to certify the award of a scholarship to a relative in a situation where the lawmaker or their staff is involved in the selection of the recipient,” she [Goldson] said.

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Johnson awarded nine to 11 scholarships a year from 2005 to 2008, the most recent years for which information was available. Each of those years, three or four winners were related to her or her district director, Rod Givens. Johnson said she divided the available funds equally among recipients, and every qualified applicant got a scholarship.

The foundation asks applicants to certify that they aren’t related to those associated with the caucus or the foundation, but it does not specify which relationships that includes.

{snip}

‘Not . . . proper’

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, said that {snip} Johnson’s system “is not an appropriate or proper way to distribute scholarship funds,” he said.

“It’s totally fine if the congressman or -woman wants to reach inside their own pocket and give, but to use money that people got tax deductions on to then benefit their family–it would just be setting up nonprofit organizations to get tax benefits to put their kids through college. It would wreck the whole system if that kind of thing were allowed,” Borochoff said.

{snip}

Johnson, in the interview Wednesday, dismissed concerns about the propriety of giving to her relatives or her staffers.

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The congresswoman, 74, who is expected to handily win a 10th term this fall over a relatively unknown Republican, said flatly that there was no favoritism for her aide’s children or for her grandsons or great-nephews.

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Rules clear, lawyer says

The Congressional Black Caucus consists of one U.S. senator and 41 House members–among them Johnson and two other Texans, Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green, both of Houston. All are Democrats.

The foundation is a separate, nonprofit charitable organization whose board at any time includes only a few caucus members.

The foundation, which awarded $716,000 to 556 students last year, has been criticized for spending less on scholarships than on galas and conferences that allow lobbyists to rub elbows with influential lawmakers. Fundraising for the caucus itself and its members is tightly regulated, but the closely related foundation faces few restrictions.

In 2002, Johnson chaired the caucus and served on its board.

She continued to serve on the foundation board through 2005–a year when both great-nephews and grandson Kirk Johnson received scholarships through her office, despite a rule explicitly forbidding awards to relatives of foundation board members.

{snip}

‘As best I could’

But the Johnsons, Moores and Givenses weren’t eligible under other foundation rules requiring recipients to reside or go to school in a congressional district represented by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

None of the six lived or attended school in Johnson’s district. They lived in districts represented by white Republicans.

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Even though her grandchildren grew up near Austin, she added, there was nothing untoward about giving scholarships to students outside her district.

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“If there had been very worthy applicants in my district, then I probably wouldn’t have given it” to relatives, she [Johnson] added. “But, when you have enough money to give one additional scholarship and that person’s well-qualified, I have never considered it a violation of anything to give a little help.”

James Ferris, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California, said most nonprofits seek to avoid even the perception of conflicts of interest by establishing review boards to help make selections on scholarships or grants.

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SIDEBARS

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AT A GLANCE: FOUNDATION SCHOLARSHIPS

* In 2009, the foundation–a nonprofit entity that technically is separate from the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of 42 federal lawmakers–gave out $716,000 in scholarships to 556 students. Similar sums were given out in previous years.

* Corporate donors provide most of the scholarship funds.

* The foundation sets aside $10,000 for each member of the caucus to distribute to college students, under the main scholarship program.

* Each lawmaker (or an aide or screening committee of his or her choosing) reviews applications and selects winners. There are no specific judging criteria.

* Each lawmaker can decide how many winners to pick. That determines the size of each award.

* To be eligible, a student must have a 2.5-grade-point average and must live or go to school in a district represented by a member of the caucus.

* Students must certify that they satisfy the residency requirements and aren’t related to any caucus member.

 

nepotism
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson has awarded at least 15 scholarships to her relatives and to children of an aide since 2005. The scholarships were provided by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

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