Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson Says She’ll Repay Scholarship Funds by Week’s End

Todd J. Gillman, Dallas Morning News, August 31, 2010

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson awarded eight scholarships last year to her grandsons and a top aide’s children–bringing to 23 the number of awards she handed out since 2005 in violation of Congressional Black Caucus Foundation eligibility rules.

The Dallas Morning News reported Sunday that over the last five years, the Dallas Democrat has awarded up to $20,000 in 15 scholarships to two grandsons, two great-nephews, and aide Rod Givens’ children between 2005 and 2008. The 2009 awards–reflected in a previously undisclosed list provided Monday by the foundation–push that above $25,000.

“While I am not ashamed of helping, I did not intentionally mean to violate any rules in the process,” Johnson said in a written statement issued Monday night, after two days of national scrutiny and sniping from critics, including her campaign opponent. “To rectify this matter immediately, I will reimburse the funds by the end of this week.”

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Ethics experts called Johnson’s actions troubling and potentially problematic for her, given that the scholarships violated anti-nepotism rules and went to students who neither live nor study in her district or any other represented by a member of the black caucus, as required.

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Last week, Johnson initially defended her scholarship choices, then acknowledged violating the scholarship rules, though she said she did so “unknowingly.” She also said that all qualified applicants have gotten a share of scholarship funds each year, and that she might not have picked relatives had there been more qualified applicants.

GOP ethics expert

Jan Baran, a top Republican ethics lawyer in Washington whose clients have included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said the awards may amount to fraud, given that the applicants and those selecting the winners should have known about the eligibility rules.

“If you make factual misrepresentations to obtain money it’s usually a form of fraud, either civil or criminal, where you’re trying to take possession of money under false pretenses,” Baran said. “The question is, who committed the fraud.”

Baran added that he couldn’t think of any congressional ethics case that even remotely resembled these circumstances.

But even without a specific legal violation, Baran noted that the House ethics committee can and has reprimanded or censured members for behavior that reflects poorly on the House.

Charity experts say the foundation would run afoul of tax laws if it allowed lawmakers to steer money to relatives.

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In 2009, Johnson picked 12 students to split $10,000 from two scholarship programs, according to foundation records released Monday. Eight students got one scholarship. The four other students–the congresswoman’s grandsons, Kirk and David Johnson, and her staffer’s son and daughter, Julian and Mariyah Givens–got two apiece.

Each individual scholarship was worth $625, so the relatives of Johnson and Givens each got $1,250.

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Foundation records indicate that more than a third of the foundation scholarships she has awarded since 2005 went to her relatives or those of her aide.

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Sloan [Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington], from CREW, said she doubts any crimes were committed, because “as unethical as it sounds, it’s not done with taxpayer money or campaign money.”

But, she said, the foundation should investigate whether Johnson knowingly skirted rules or encouraged her relatives and Givens’ children to seek funds that should have gone to other college students.

“It’s kind of unusual that your relatives would apply for money like that unless you told them to,” Sloan said. {snip}

Possible quandary

Sloan said it might be politically dicey for the ethics committee to target another black lawmaker, now that two–Reps. Charlie Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California–face rare ethics hearings in coming months. “There’s just too many issues with African-American members,” she said.

Baran disagreed. “If a member is committing fraud and getting money for relatives in improper ways, I don’t think that’s going to stop the ethics committee from taking a look as to what actually transpired,” he said.

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