By: Michael H. Cottman
For years during the Congressional Black Caucus’ festive annual gala, black professionals whispered about the perceived extravagance associated with one of Washington’s premiere black social events. On Capitol Hill, where perception is everything, black members of Congress were known more for throwing lavish parties than sponsoring serious legislation.
Over cocktails and shrimp, questions were raised privately about whether the Congressional Black Caucus was actually working in the best interest of black Americans while accepting money from corporations to pay millions of dollars for expensive receptions, fashion shows and long-winded testimonials to honor each other.
But nobody dared to talk out of school.
Last week, The New York Times put an abrupt end to the whisper campaign, reporting that of the $55 million the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) raised from 2004 to 2008, only $1 million went to its non-profit network.
“The caucus says its non-profit 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,” according to the Times’ blockbuster investigation. “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,” the Times reported.
Today, there are more questions – and serious concerns – about the CBCF, an organization which appears to have dubious fundraising practices and little regard for how money is spent on worthy causes for disenfranchised black citizens.
And worse, all eight current House investigations involve black Caucus members “and most center on accusations of improper ties to private businesses,” according to the Times.
Have black congressional leaders betrayed the trust of African Americans who are suffering? Has money been siphoned off from black single mothers and single fathers, raising children alone? What about black high school students who have great promise but no financial resources for college? And have black seniors received their fair share of funding for assistance with health care in their communities?
To say the CBCF has an image problem is a huge understatement. What’s clear is this: The Caucus needs an extensive – and immediate – overhaul along with an impartial auditor to oversee the books, page by page, line by line. There are no quick fixes here. The Times story alleges there is so much co-mingling between the Congressional Black Caucus and the CBCF, that it’s difficult to determine where the politics end and non-profit work begins.
And here’s some irony: Each year, the CBCF offers forums during its conference, internships and retreats designed to mentor young black professionals – “the emerging leaders of tomorrow.” So with eight Caucus members under investigation for potential ethics violations, what message is the CBCF sending to young black men and women who are considering a life in public service or thinking about running for elected office? Is this the best our current black leaders in Congress have to offer young people?
And there’s more.
“Even as it has used its status as a civil rights organization to become a fund-raising power in Washington, the caucus has had to fend off criticism of ties to companies whose business is seen by some as detrimental to its black constituents. These include cigarette companies, Internet poker operators, beer brewers and the rent-to-own industry, which has become a particular focus of consumer advocates for its practice of charging high monthly fees for appliances, televisions and computers,” according to the Times.
These accusations beg for a more detailed response from the leadership of the CBCF.
The new chairman of the CBCF – Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey – hasn’t publicly uttered a word on the subject. Payne inherited this embarrassing mess from outgoing CBCF chairman Rep. Kendrick Meek of Florida, who is busy running for a U.S. Senate seat. Some of the CBCF’s alleged mismanagement happened during Meek’s tenure as chairman, but Meek, like Payne, has also been silent on the need for checks and balances inside the CBCF.
Later this year, the CBCF will host its 2010 legislative conference, which is likely to include an awards dinner, a fashion show, and tons of food. Perhaps it’s time for the CBCF to scale back on the gala and related parties, go easy on all the self-congratulatory receptions and offer black participants more in the way of substance – especially in these troubling economic times, where the black unemployment rate is a staggering 16.4 percent.
Meanwhile, the CBCF Web site is promoting an upcoming musical event in New York City on Feb. 26 – “a night of high-energy” and Broadway entertainment.
“Proceeds from ticket sales will support CBCF’s mission to advance the global black community by developing leaders, informing policy and educating the public,” the CBCF promises.