WASHINGTON – An internal audit of the scholarship program of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation was under way Tuesday, sparked by the admission by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson that she had steered scholarships to her relatives and the children of a staff member.
The foundation's chairman, Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., said that neither the foundation nor the Congressional Black Caucus "will allow unethical behavior in the awarding of scholarships or any programs that are designed to benefit the community."
The foundation is a tax-exempt organization that is run by its own staff, but with strong ties to the caucus of African-American lawmakers.
The Dallas Morning News first reported that 23 scholarships Johnson, D-Texas, handed out since 2005 violated eligibility rules.
Johnson said Monday that her actions were unintentional, but foundation attorney Amy Goldson pointed out that the students, the lawmaker awarding the foundation scholarships or the lawmaker's designee must certify that the recipients are not related to the lawmaker.
Payne said that despite a system of checks and balances in philanthropic organizations, "there are weaknesses and there are people who find a way around the system." He said the next scholarship programs will be delayed for four months to ensure that new measures are in place to prevent any self-dealing or nepotism.
Goldson, the organization's longtime lawyer who is not a staff member, said, "I never dreamed such a thing would have occurred."
"Rest assured they are not just sitting idly by," Goldson said of the foundation's staff. "They are looking at this very seriously. They are going to do everything they can to see if this has occurred in the past and put in place additional guidelines to make sure it doesn't occur again."
The Morning News reported 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.
The foundation said it awarded $716,000 in scholarships to 556 students in 2009.
In addition to violating the ban on awards to relatives of lawmakers, the scholarships from Johnson apparently violated a foundation rule that recipients live or study in the member's congressional district.
The foundation aims to develop future African-American leaders, research issues important to African-Americans and promote good health. It has numerous corporate sponsors. Of its 32 officers and board members, 11 are House members.
The foundation has an annual golf and tennis event, a prayer breakfast and a legislative conference.
Goldson said the foundation was formed in 1976 when there were few African-American members of Congress and congressional staff members. There was an occasional secretary and others had jobs such as elevator operators.
The foundation was formed to allow African-Americans to learn about Congress and develop leadership skills.
"In all these years the CBC Foundation has really done a lot of good and it is very sad that an infraction by a member can undo all the good work the foundation has done," Goldson said.