The Sanford Bishop Saga: Pondering the Ethical Implications of Another Congressional Black Caucus Scholarship Cheat

At this point, anyone who is surprised to learn that a member of the Congressional Black Caucus has been caught violating basic principles of ethics has not been paying attention. The Caucus has systematically corrupted itself by excusing blatant misconduct by its members for so long, reasoning—wrongly—that it is more important for black members of Congress to show loyalty and solidarity with their race than to be role models and honest public servants. Sadly, it would be newsworthy to learn that there is a CBC member who is passionate about holding public servants to a high level of trustworthiness. There apparently are no such members, however. If there were some, they would have resigned from an organization that reflexively defends black Representatives who abuse their power, position and trust (thus endorsing unethical conduct) and cries racism when anyone outside the Caucus, including the House Ethics Committee, criticizes the obvious.

Perhaps this is why the revelation that Rep. Stanford Bishop (D-GA.) distributed scholarship funds intended for needy students in his district to family members and political cronies received so little media attention. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas has already been caught doing the same thing, and expressed no contrition or remorse about it. The CBC, naturally, did nothing in either case. Neither the media nor the public is surprised any more to discover that a Congressional Black Caucus member is misusing funds, so why make a big deal about it?

Like Johnson, Bishop used the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s scholarship funds as a personal slush fund to give gifts to his family members and the families of his staff members and associates. Other aspects of the reaction to the revelations (which came as the result of a foundation audit prompted by Rep. Johnson’s heist) were revealing:

  • Bishop’s camp argued that the gifts to the family members of Bishop staffers as well as associates of Bishop’s wife weren’t unethical, because the rules of the Foundation only specifically banned gifts to his own family members. (Rep. Johnson’s version of this argument was that grandchildren didn’t qualify as immediate family.) Well, he gave Foundation scholarships to his stepdaughter and niece, but never mind: this argument is proof of corruption. Everyone in and out of the Foundation knew that the money was intended to go to the needy and deserving. This argument shows a clinical misunderstanding of the concept of ethics. Yes, it may not have technically violated the letter of the rules, but what Bishop did was undeniably unethical. If his staff argues otherwise, it means either that his staff thinks the corrupt use of charitable funds for personal agendas is defensible—meaning that Bishop is corrupt, since he is responsible for imbuing his staff with his own values—or that his spokespeople are lying. Either way, they are unethical.
  • The Congressional Black Caucus itself has made no statement about the conduct of either Bishop or Johnson, though it was the Caucus’s foundation’s funds that they abused. The Caucus’s official motto should be “Loyalty Over Principle, Race Over Accountability.”
  • Amy Goldson, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation attorney who knows who signs her paycheck, said that while the charity prohibits scholarships to the relatives of CBC members, the question of whether scholarships can go to the relatives of others with ties to Bishop or his wife “depends on the circumstances”.  No, Amy, it doesn’t. This is Appearance of Propriety 101; it is why employees of the company that produces “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” are banned from being contestants even if they could win with their knowledge of trivia and word skills.  It would look terrible, it would be an invitation to bias, it would appear unfair, and it would destroys the credibility of the games. “If it was a fair and impartial determination, I would not think it’s wrong,” Goldson said. Really? And who would believe it was “fair and impartial,” if money given out at Bishop’s discretion went to scholarship applicants with ties to Bishop cronies?  How would we know if it was “fair and impartial,” if Bishop or anyone with ties to Bishop had a say in the final determination? Does Goldson make the same argument about the scholarships awarded by Bishop to Bishop’s family? Why not? What’s wrong with giving money to your own family as long as the determination is “fair and impartial”?  It is wrong because it isn’t fair by definition…and neither is giving money to friends, family friends, business associates or family business associates.
  • Republicans blast Georgia lawmaker over black caucus scholarships” read the headlines. Why is this reported as if it is just another partisan issue? Why don’t Democrats—never mind the CBC itself, whose own Foundation’s funds were looted— “blast” dishonest officials? Why does party affiliation provide immunity from accountability? A headline like this misleads the public by implying that the criticism is driven by politics as usual rather than by simple facts: Bishop has shown himself to be untrustworthy, and everyone who cares about good government and ethical public service should be “blasting him.”

In an alternate universe where ethics is the natural way of things, both parties would criticize conduct like Rep. Bishop’s and Rep. Johnson’s. Upon being caught robbing needy students from their districts of the chance to pay for their education to benefit family members, the Congressman and Congresswoman would resign in disgrace. In an ethical universe, they would be condemned by the Congressional Black Caucus as breaching their duty as legislators to uphold and represent the highest standards of conduct. (Although in an ethical universe, there would be no Congressional Black Caucus, the very existence of which is an endorsement of bias and racism.) In an ethical universe, a representative like Stanford Bishop would have no chance of being re-elected, because voters would know that a public official who misuses scholarship funds can no more be trusted to use taxpayer money properly than an alcoholic can be trusted with the key to the liquor cabinet. In an ethical universe, a story that a U.S. Congressman, black or white, did something like this would be big news, because it would be shocking.

This is not that universe, however. In this universe, unethical conduct by a member of Congress is hardly newsworthy, and the Congressional Black Caucus regards keeping corrupt black members in office as more important than getting scholarship funds to students who need them.

3 thoughts on “The Sanford Bishop Saga: Pondering the Ethical Implications of Another Congressional Black Caucus Scholarship Cheat

  1. Just amazing what has been allowed to go on and the national media coverage is atrocious.

    There are dozens of local charities where I live that give out scholarships. If people in charge at any of those organization were found to have funneled scholarships to family members and friends, they’d be tossed out and the local media would be all over it.

  2. Eddie Bernice Johnson —Sanford D. Bishop should be in prison for what they did if I did this where I work police would be there to arrest me. They may have paid the money back which shows they knew they did wrong…How stupid do they think the public is –well we are not they need to to prison with the rest of the bad duds…

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