Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a longtime congresswoman from Texas, said Monday she will return scholarship money she distributed to her relatives and those of a top aide from a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation program in violation of the group's rules.
"I was unaware of being in any type of violation and never intentionally violated the CBCF’s rules. Further, to rectify this matter immediately, I will reimburse the funds by the end of this week," Johnson said in a statement.
Johnson, an influential Democratic member of Congress and former Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman, told The Dallas Morning News that she "unknowingly" violated nepotism rules when she gave two grandsons, two great-nephews and her district director's two children scholarship money.
The newspaper was first to report Monday that Johnson awarded nine to 11 scholarships per year from 2005 to 2008, the years the Morning News had available for review, and in each year, three or four winners were related to Johnson or her district director, Rod Givens.
"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," she told the newspaper, adding that had had there been "very worthy applicants in my district ... then I probably wouldn't have given it" to the relatives.
In her statement Monday evening, Johnson pledged to establish a "non-biased third party objective review committee" to handle awarding future scholarships.
Caucus members get $10,000 each year in corporate and private donations to the foundation to distribute as awards. The Dallas Morning News noted that Johnson, who is a former board member of the foundation, said she didn't know all the program's rules and didn't "personally benefit."
"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 told the Morning News.
The foundation's general counsel, Amy Goldson, told the newspaper that the program "operates on an honor system," so it doesn't track whether the candidates are relatives of the members.
"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 is quoted saying.
Whether Johnson will face an ethics probe in the House is unclear. While using one's position to benefit family would appear right up the ethics committee's alley, Johnson's claims to have unknowingly violated the rules may keep it an internal CBC Foundation.
Johnson said she awarded grants outside her district because she is a lone Democrat in the Republican heartland of Texas.
"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," she said.