CBC Foundation Chair Orders Audit in Johnson Scholarship Scandal

Are Pelosi's efforts to drain the ethical swamp in Washington working?

By Jamilah King Sep 01, 2010

New details are emerging in the brewing scandal involving Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. Yesterday, the Dallas Morning News reported that Johnson, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), had admitted to awarding CBC Foundation scholarships to her relatives and the family of her chief of staff–in direct violation of the foundation’s rules.

Now, the The Morning News is reporting that the foundation’s chairman is speaking out against Johnson, and it’s clear that, however the allegations came to light, it’s turning into another big headache for Democrats in a tough election season.

"Neither the Foundation nor the Congressional Black Caucus will allow unethical behavior in the awarding of scholarships or any programs that are designed to benefit the community," said Rep. Donald Payne, chair of the CBC Foundation. "There will be no self-dealing or nepotism in the awarding of college scholarships."

Payne has since ordered an "extensive audit" to figure out just how deep the foundation’s fiscal irregularities go, and to figure out how to monitor scholarship awards more carefully.

Johnson, a nine term Democrat in Texas’ 30th congressional district, was found to have awarded 23 scholarships worth an estimated $25,000 to four of her relatives and two children of her district director Rod Givens. The scholarship recipients were ineligible on several levels; on top of being related to CBC members, none lived in congressional districts represented by a caucus member, a requirement that’s reportedly clearly marked on every application.

Johnson has tried to defend her actions by claiming that the rules were broken "unknowingly,", and that she probably would’ve have chosen different awardees if more eligible students from her district had applied. Critics contend that not enough was done to publicize the awards.

The scholarships are funded by private donations and issued through the CBC foundation, a separate non-profit entity in which lawmakers are heavily involved. Johnson chaired the caucus in 2002 and served on the foundation board for the next four years–which means she was on the board at the same time that she’s accused of playing favorites.

Each CBC member is given $10,000 in scholarship money for students in their districts. The Morning News reports that last year, Johnson gave half of her pot of award money to two of her grandsons and Givens’ kids.

While Johnson has promised to repay the money by the end of this week, the scandal is particularly embarrassing for the foundation, which has recently been criticized for spending more money on fundraising galas than on scholarships for needy constituents.

The caucus includes one senator and 41 House members, all of whom are Democrats. At least two longtime members, Reps. Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters, are already facing highly publicized ethics trials this fall.

It’s unclear whether Republican-led animus is responsible for the scandal coming to light, or merely making it worse. The Republican National Committee has cited Johnson’s "nepotism scandal" atop their list of ethically challenged Democrats in an ongoing effort to undermine House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s vow to "drain" the ethical swamp in Congress and take back the House in November.

Pelosi and member of the Democratic National Committee had previously vowed to used the handful of CBC scandals to prove that the Democratic strategy to clean up Congress was in fact working.