WASHINGTON (AP) – A Texas congresswoman admitted that she wrongly steered thousands of dollars in college scholarships from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to her own relatives and the children of a staff member but said she did so unintentionally.
Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson said in a statement Monday that she will reimburse the foundation by the end of the week. She did not state how much money was involved. The Dallas Morning News reported Monday that 23 scholarships she has handed out since 2005 violated the foundation's eligibility rules.
The Morning News reported on its website that Johnson had arranged scholarships between 2005 and 2008 for two grandsons and two grandnephews and the son and daughter of a Dallas-based aide, Rod Givens.
The newspaper placed the amount of those scholarships at up to $20,000. In 2009, according to the foundation, Johnson gave two grandsons and the aide's two children two scholarships apiece from foundation funds, the newspaper reported. Relatives of members of Congress are ineligible to receive scholarship funds from the foundation because of anti-nepotism rules.
The scholarships also violate a foundation rule that recipients need to live or study in the district represented by the Black Caucus member who awards the scholarship.
“As previously stated, I was unaware of being in any type of violation and never intentionally violated the CBCF's rules,'' Johnson said in a statement sent by e-mail by her office.
She said she would appoint a third party to examine her office's practices in distributing scholarship money.
“I have never and never planned to restrict my help to only Texans who reside in my district,'' she said. “My district lines have constantly changed and since I am the only Democrat in the entire North Texas Region … much of my district office casework benefits people outside my constituency. While I am not ashamed of helping, I did not intentionally mean to violate any rules in the process.''
The Black Caucus Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed by black lawmakers, receives millions of dollars in private corporate sponsorships. The group is best-known for organizing an annual legislative conference in Washington that draws thousands of black leaders around the country. It also runs various programs aimed at getting African-American youths involved in government and politics.
The foundation provides $10,000 a year for members of the Congressional Black Caucus to dispense in scholarships. Members can decide how the money is split and how it is awarded, although the foundation sets some basic rules. Muriel Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, did not respond to an AP request for comment.
Johnson's actions could lead to a House ethics investigation. The key question would be whether she used official resources, including congressional staff, in any aspect of the scholarship program. An investigation also could look at whether she violated the federal government's Code of Ethics, which says government officials cannot discriminate unfairly by dispensing special favors or privileges to anyone.
The code says officials cannot accept, for themselves or their families, favors or benefits under circumstances that might be construed as influencing performance of official duties.
Johnson, 74, is seeking her 10th term in Congress and represents a Dallas-area district. In the e-mail, she said she is recuperating from major surgery. She was not expected to face a difficult re-election campaign. Her GOP opponent, Stephen Broden, a pastor, said in a radio interview on Monday that he planned to make the scholarship money an issue.
“We really need a change that emphasizes the needs of the district over self-interest and self-aggrandizement,'' Broden said on The Mark Davis Show,'' a Dallas-area radio program.
Pictured: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson