Which is the more unethical conduct for a U.S. Congresswoman: handing out non-profit money to relatives and friends, or lying about it so flagrantly that it insults the intelligence of everyone within earshot? It’s a tough call. Luckily, we really don’t have to decide in the case of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), because she’s done both.
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, supported by private and corporate donations, provides $10,000 annually for each member of the Congressional Black Caucus to award in scholarships. Each member gets to decide how many ways to split the money and whether to create a judging panel, choose personally or delegate the task.
[Let me pause here to point out that this policy is an invitation to abuse, as Rep. Johnson has proved. The Foundation has a fiduciary obligation to provide competent oversight to make sure Black Caucus members do not violate giving guidelines. Giving complete autonomy to the members in their methods of choosing recipients of the scholarships does not meet that obligation. The Foundation has also been criticized for spending too much money on social and networking activities and not enough on its supposed educational purpose.]
If the Black Caucus Foundation had paid proper attention to the activities of Black Caucus members, Rep. Johnson might not have awarded thousands of dollars in college scholarships to four relatives and a top aide’s two children since 2005. But they didn’t, and she did. The Foundation has anti-nepotism rules, and even if it didn’t, Johnson’s using non-profit scholarship money as a personal gift fund to reward staffers and enrich relatives is obviously a conflict of interest.
Caught red-handed, Johnson did the usual: she lied. In her case, however, the lies were more audacious than usual. First she denied any “favoritism,” meaning that she expects intelligent, or even semi-intelligent, people to believe that she just happened to choose friends and relatives for the scholarships without their connection to her, blood or otherwise, figuring in her decision. Then her office released a statement that, well, yes, she acknowledged violating the rules but had done so “unknowingly.” “Unknowingly” can only mean that she didn’t know that Foundation’s rules prohibited members from giving Foundation money to their relatives, didn’t realize that nepotism is unfair, and didn’t realize that when it came to awarding scholarships on merit, being related to the Congresswoman or having a parent that works for her isn’t merit enough. Her excuse also requires us to believe that though she has served on the Foundation’s board, she was unaware of the rule that required all scholarship recipients to live in the Congressional District of the member giving out the cash. None of Johnson’s relatives or staff offspring qualified under this criteria, either.
The foundation’s general counsel, Amy Goldson, said that the scholarship program “operates on an honor system,” so the foundation hadn’t known that money went to Johnson’s relatives. The failure, Goldson said, 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.” Rep. Johnson’s biased awards also required the recipients to participate in the cover-up: they had to certify that they weren’t related to anyone connected to the Caucus or its foundation. Johnson claims that this is all new to her.
She awarded nine to eleven scholarships a year from 2005 to 2008, the most recent years for which information was available. In each of those four years, three or four winners were related to her or her district director, Rod Givens. Scholarships have gone to two of the congresswoman’s grandsons, Kirk and David Johnson; to two of her great-nephews, Gregory and Preston Moore; and to Givens’ son and daughter. (“None of these people are my immediate family,” said the Congresswoman. “Immediate family doesn’t include grandchildren.”)
“I recognized the names when I saw them,” she said. (That’s encouraging—she knows her relatives’ names!) “And I knew that they had a need just like any other kid that would apply for one.” (And of course, her assessment of their worthiness was in no way affected by the fact that she had to see their parents every day, or would be having Christmas dinner with them.) She explained further that the lack of other “very worthy applicants in my district” drove her decision, and had there been any, “then I probably wouldn’t have given it” to the relatives. Amazing—the middle of a recession, and yet there are no scholarship-worthy applicants in Johnson’s District. She had no choice, really, when you look at it that way! The reason there were few “worthy applicants” appears to be that Rep. Johnson didn’t publicize the availability of the scholarships in her District—all the better to make them available to her kin who didn’t live in her District.
Lies, lies, and more lies…and silly lies, at that. Then, like the cherry on top of a lies sundae, this topper: Rep. Johnson argues that she didn’t “personally benefit.” This will undoubtedly be her defense should the House Ethics Committee find fault with her actions. What a great theory—illicitly channeling money for scholarships away from deserving recipients into the hands of non-qualifying family members is an innocent mistake, because she didn’t give the money to herself!
Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, looks at it a little differently. “It’s totally fine if the congresswoman wants to reach inside [her] own pocket and give, but to use money that people got tax deductions on to then benefit [her] family – it would just be setting up nonprofit organizations to get tax benefits to put their kids through college. It would wreck the whole system if that kind of thing were allowed,” Borochoff said. You see, Rep. Johnson, when you use other people’s money to help people you should be using your own money to help, you do “personally benefit.”
But of course you knew that.
It is time that the Congressional Black Caucus is asked (though it would be heartening if they asked themselves) why their organizational culture is so unethical and whether the tolerance for corruption undermines the group’s credibility, dignity, and effectiveness. I don’t understand why there is a Black Caucus in 2010, but since there is, one would think that it has an obligation to encourage its members to represent their constituents, the House of Representatives and its race with high ethical standards, rather than venality and conflicts of interest. Two of its most powerful members, Rep. Rangel and Rep. Waters, are about to stand trial for ethics violations, Several others are under investigation, and the Caucus had the recent indignity of seeing another member, William Jefferson, be sent to jail for bribery. Johnson herself is a former chairwoman of the Caucus. In the wake of the charges against Waters and Rangel, several C.B.C. members have asked pointedly why a disproportionate number of their colleagues are being accused of corruption. The revelations about Johnson and her embarrassingly dishonest response to them suggests the answer: the Congressional Black Caucus has too many corrupt members, and has not made a sufficient effort to address a culture of entitlement and arrogance in its ranks.