By Jackie Jones
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation has pushed back its deadline to begin considering applications for its scholarship program after a second member of the caucus admitted giving scholarships to family members.
Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) has admitted he awarded three scholarships from the program to his stepdaughter, his wife’s niece and an aide’s future wife between 2003 and 2005.
The non-profit foundation’s records show Bishop picked his stepdaughter, Aayesha Owens Reese — the daughter of Bishop’s wife, Vivian Creighton-Bishop — to receive the money in 2003.
Records also show Bishop awarded foundation scholarships in 2003 and 2005 to his niece, Emmaundia J. Whitaker. Another of his 2003 recipients, Sherletha A. Thomas, is now the wife of Bishop’s longtime district staff director, Kenneth Cutts.
How much money each of the women received was not disclosed.
The foundation prohibits scholarships from going to lawmakers’ relatives, but Bishop says the rules were unclear when his family members got their money.
An attorney for the foundation, Amy R. Goldson, said in an e-mail the group has always required that government officials not use the awards to benefit themselves.
Melanie Sloan, director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said members of Congress shouldn’t need such rules to know that awarding scholarship money to their families is inappropriate.
“Giving scholarships to your family is clearly wrong,” Sloan said. “How could you not know better? All of their explanations and rationalizations ring hollow.”
Bishop’s admission follows that of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), who admitted last month that she had awarded eight scholarships last year to her grandsons, great-nephews and a top aide’s children in violation of the program’s eligibility rules.
Initially, Johnson said she was unaware of the anti-nepotism rule. Later, she said she also had difficulty finding students in her district eligible for the scholarship, which required a minimum 2.5 grade point average – about a C+.
Finally, in a statement, Johnson said that she would reimburse the fund. She has since repaid $31,000.
In the wake of Johnson’s admission, the foundation announced it would undergo an “extensive audit” to determine whether there had been other violations and to review its policies.
“I have instructed every member of the Caucus, along with CBCF staff, to immediately review systems to ensure the highest degree of transparency, integrity and disclosure,” Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), chairman of the foundation, said in a statement.
“Neither the Foundation nor the CBC will allow unethical behavior in the awarding of scholarships or any programs that are designed to benefit the community,” the statement continued.
According to Talking Points Memo, the foundation has pushed back its application deadline from November to January while the investigation continues.
Under the audit, the foundation, which gives $10,000 to each member every year to distribute to students in their district, asked all of its members to review their records.
“We’ve done a process of an extensive audit,” foundation spokeswoman Muriel Cooper told TPM.
Foundation staff, along with the members and their staffs, have been asked to go back and make sure there have been no other instances of nepotism, “to make sure we have the highest degree of transparency,” Cooper said.
A spokesman for Bishop said that the nine-term congressman would donate to the program an amount equal to the total of the scholarships, according to the Huffington Post.
The foundation came under scrutiny in February, when The New York Times reported that of $55 million the foundation raised from 2004 to 2008, only $1 million went to its nonprofit network.
According to the story, “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.”
A BlackAmericaWeb.com analysis at the time noted the foundation’s leadership had been silent on the issue of fundraising, including the foundation’s ties to companies whose businesses had been deemed by some as harmful to the black community, as well as eight investigations involving its members in the House of Representatives.
The foundation responded that the criticism was off base and that the CBC did not control the foundation. Still, several CBC members are on the boards of some of the foundation’s programs.
The latest admission by Bishop also comes as the foundation prepares for its Annual Legislative Conference and as many Democrats are fighting a conservative backlash seeking to capture the majority out of at least one house – if not both houses – nof Congress.
Bishop is considered to be in an unusually tough fight for his rural southwest Georgia seat against conservative Republican state Rep. Mike Keown, who is supported by the Tea Party.
In addition, Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) have been accused of ethics violations, seven-term Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan was ousted in the Democratic primary, and several other lawmakers are struggling to get traction in the off-year elections in November.