WASHINGTON – A Georgia congressman awarded his stepdaughter, a niece and an aide's future wife college scholarships through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, making him the second House Democrat known to use the group to steer money to relatives and associates.
The nonprofit foundation's records show Rep. Sanford Bishop picked his stepdaughter, Aayesha Owens Reese, to receive the money in 2003.
Records also show Bishop awarded foundation scholarships in 2003 and 2005 to his niece, Emmaundia J. Whitaker. Another of his 2003 recipients, Sherletha A. Thomas, is now the wife of Bishop's longtime district staff director, Kenneth Cutts.
The foundation prohibits scholarships from going to lawmakers' relatives, but Bishop says the rules were unclear when his family members got their money.
An attorney for the foundation, Amy R. Goldson, said in an e-mail the group has always required that government officials not use the awards to benefit themselves.
Melanie Sloan, director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said members of Congress shouldn't need such rules to know that awarding scholarship money to their families is inappropriate.
"Giving scholarships to your family is clearly wrong," Sloan said. "How could you not know better? All of their explanations and rationalizations ring hollow."
Bishop campaign spokesman Tim Turner confirmed the relationships in an e-mail Friday. He said Whitaker is Bishop's niece by marriage and that Cutts and Thomas were not married at the time she got the money.
In a prepared statement, Turner said Bishop would "donate an amount equal to the scholarships" back to the foundation. He did not give an amount or say for how many scholarships, but said Bishop was working to determine that.
Another member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, said last week she would repay some $31,000 in aid money after the Dallas Morning News reported she had steered scholarships to her relatives and the children of a top aide.
Bishop's spokesman in Washington, Ashton McRae, did not return phone calls and e-mail messages Friday from The Associated Press. The Bishop scholarships were first reported by Politico.
After a town hall meeting Friday in Americus, Ga., Bishop told south Georgia television station WALB that he did nothing wrong.
"At the time that this took place, there were not very clear guidelines on it," Bishop told the station. "Of course, those were clarified at the earliest, 2006, and all these were given before that time."
The revelation is the latest in a series of missteps by Bishop that, along with an anti-incumbent sentiment among voters, are putting the nine-term lawmaker in an unusually tough fight for his rural southwest Georgia seat.
Bishop faces Republican Mike Keown in the November midterm elections.
"Some people define character as doing the right thing when nobody's looking, and it's obvious that Sanford Bishop has failed that test," Andrew O'Shea, Keown's campaign manager, said Friday.
Turner's statement accused Keown of "scoring cheap political points by attacking Representative Bishop and his family."
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a nonprofit organization, receives millions of dollars in private corporate sponsorships. It has its own staff and is separate from the Congressional Black Caucus, but it was formed by the all-Democratic group of African-American lawmakers and maintains strong ties.
The foundation provides the black lawmakers $10,000 each to dispense in scholarships annually. Members can decide how the money is split and how it is awarded, although the foundation sets some basic rules.
In response to Friday's report, the foundation reissued a statement from last week that the organization is auditing the program and will demand accountability from its members.
"Neither the foundation nor the CBC will allow unethical behavior in the awarding of scholarships or any programs that are designed to benefit the community," said Rep. Donald Payne, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the foundation.
A list of scholarship recipients published by the foundation shows Reese — the daughter of Bishop's wife, Vivian Creighton-Bishop — was among those awarded money by the Georgia congressman in 2003.
The foundation listed Whitaker among those Bishop award scholarships to in 2003 and 2005. Thomas was also named as one of Bishop's 2003 picks. How much money each of the women received was not disclosed.
Bishop's wife and Cutts, his aide, didn't return phone messages.
Last year, Bishop came under scrutiny when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation looked into a nonprofit youth program to which Bishop steered nearly $200,000 in earmarks.
The group in Columbus, Ga., was employing two of his relatives, including Reese. A county audit raised red flags after finding that Reese and her husband were paid more than $14,000 by the program, even though they lived some 100 miles away.
Authorities ultimately said they found nothing illegal and closed the investigation.
More recently, Bishop's campaign said the congressman reprimanded an aide who told a farmer in an angry voicemail not to bother asking Bishop's office for farm aid anymore. The aide claimed the farmer uttered a racial slur toward Bishop. But the farmer said he simply told the congressman he wouldn't vote for him.
Bishop's press secretary also apologized in July for sending campaign-related material through the congressman's taxpayer-funded e-mail and posting it on his congressional website.
Bynum reported from Savannah, Ga.