Longtime Dallas congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson has awarded thousands of dollars in college scholarships to four relatives and a top aide’s two children since 2005, using foundation funds set aside for black lawmakers’ causes.
The recipients were ineligible under anti-nepotism rules of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which provided the money. And all of the awards violated a foundation requirement that scholarship winners live or study in a caucus member’s district.
Johnson, a Democrat, denied any favoritism when asked about the scholarships last week. Two days later, she acknowledged in a statement released by her office that she had violated the rules but said she had done so “unknowingly” and would work with the foundation to “rectify the financial situation.”
Initially, she said, “I recognized the names when I saw them. And I knew that they had a need just like any other kid that would apply for one.” Had there been more “very worthy applicants in my district,” she added, “then I probably wouldn’t have given it” to the relatives.
Her handling of the scholarships puts a rare spotlight on the program and how it is overseen. Caucus members have great leeway in how they pick winners and how aggressively they publicize the awards. Some lawmakers promote the program online, for instance, while Johnson does not.
Philanthropy experts said such lax oversight of scholarship money doesn’t match the standards for charities.
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The foundation – which is supported by private and corporate donations, not taxpayer money – provides $10,000 annually for each member of the Congressional Black Caucus to award in scholarships. Each gets to decide how many ways to split the money and whether to create a judging panel, choose personally or delegate the task.
Johnson, a former chairwoman of the caucus who has served on the board that oversees the foundation, said she wasn’t fully aware of the program rules and emphasized that she didn’t “personally benefit.”
In her interview with The Dallas Morning News, on Wednesday, Johnson said “hundreds of kids got scholarships since I have been here.” Her district covers much of southern Dallas County, including many of the area’s less affluent precincts.
“The most that any kid normally gets is from $1,000 to $1,200. … If it was a secret or if I was trying to hide it, I wouldn’t have done it,” she said.
The foundation’s general counsel, Amy Goldson, said Saturday that the scholarships Johnson awarded violated eligibility rules regarding relatives and residency and are “of great concern.”
The program “operates on an honor system,” so the foundation hadn’t known that money went to Johnson’s relatives, she said. But when a recipient fails to meet eligibility requirements or “misrepresents their eligibility, the scholarship funds must be returned.”
Further, Goldson said, the failure of a lawmaker or aides to follow eligibility rules “is a violation of the letter and spirit of [the Foundation's] requirements.”
“It is inappropriate for a lawmaker to certify the award of a scholarship to a relative in a situation where the lawmaker or their staff is involved in the selection of the recipient,” she said.