COLUMBUS, Ga. – The controversy over Rep. Sanford Bishop's decision to award charity scholarships to his relatives has expanded as four more students tied to the south Georgia Democrat and his wife have acknowledged receiving them, as well.
Bishop earlier this month repaid the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation $6,350 to cover the cost of scholarships that he provided to his stepdaughter and niece. The nonprofit foundation receives funding from corporate sponsors to help fund the education of needy students.
Now the circle of people known to have received scholarships and have connections to the Bishops is growing, raising fresh criticism from a government watchdog group and questions from charity officials. Public documents and interviews show that two scholarships went to the children of individuals who were employed by Bishop's wife, while two more went to persons with connections to the congressman's office.
"Those scholarships were intended to go to smart, needy kids," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It wasn't supposed to be a matter of cronyism."
Bishop, who is running for re-election against Republican Mike Keown, has refused to discuss his or his wife's relationships with the scholarship recipients, except to say the awards met rules set by the CBC Foundation.
"There's no reason to go into this, so we're not going to do it," Bishop spokesman Tim Turner said.
The foundation, a nonprofit that supports the work of the CBC through policy seminars and other activities, did not explicitly bar scholarships from going to relatives of lawmakers, foundation board members and staff until 2008.
But an attorney for the foundation, Amy Goldson, said it's long been understood that scholarships shouldn't be directed to relatives.
"Would they be happy to admit in public that we're raising this money because we want to give this to our relatives?" asked Goldson. "Nope, this is to help deserving young students who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity."
The foundation began an internal audit of its scholarship program this summer after U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas admitted that she steered scholarships to her relatives and a staffer's children.
In Bishop's case, scholarships went to people who worked for his wife, Columbus Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop, who chaired a committee of lawmaker spouses who raised money for the scholarship program from 2003 to 2005.
Besides assisting his two relatives, Rep. Bishop earlier acknowledged that one scholarship went to Sherletha Thomas, who once worked for his wife and is now married to a staffer of the congressman's.
Others related to those with ties to Rep. Bishop recently said they received scholarships during the years 2001 to 2003.
For example, Bonica Smith, the daughter of a deputy to Bishop's wife, received a scholarship during the 2001 school year, according to records published by the CBC Foundation. The foundation did not make clear how much each student received, and Barbara Smith, the deputy clerk, said she could not recall the financial details (though she confirmed that she was working for Bishop's wife at the time of the scholarship).
"Someone mentioned it to me," Barbara Smith said, speaking of the scholarship. "And I knew that Ms. Bishop was a member of the CBC. And I asked her about it."
Smith's daughter started her college education at Columbus State University and is now preparing to become a teacher at a local Troy University campus, her mother said.
A second scholarship went in 2003 to Kelli Blair, the daughter of deputy court clerk Shirley Blair. Shirley Blair said she learned of the scholarship through word of mouth as her daughter prepared to enter Columbus State.
"I know Vivian, we got the application, we filled it out and there was certain criteria that my daughter had to meet," the elder Blair said.
Tiffany Tisdale, who won a scholarship for the 2003 school year, is the niece of Doris Gillispie, a Bishop staffer, according to Tisdale's mother, Jacqueline Tisdale. The student did not receive any assistance from her aunt, Jacqueline Tisdale said.
Tiffany Tisdale said she was qualified for a scholarship because she had a 3.9 grade point average and played sports. The grant was one of many scholarships she cobbled together to afford college.
"I was just trying to go to school and didn't want a whole lot of student loans," Tiffany Tisdale said.
In another case, Jonathan Alston, a former intern and campaign volunteer for Rep. Bishop, won a scholarship in 2003 — he estimates it was for $500 to $1,000. Although he didn't live in Bishop's district, his hometown and college were represented by CBC members.
In general, students seeking a scholarship must be pursuing an undergraduate degree full-time at an accredited college or university. They must have a GPA of at least 2.5, demonstrate leadership and community service and live or attend school in a CBC member's district.
Foundation officials say lawmakers generally work through selection committees to pick scholarship winners.
Goldson, the foundation attorney, 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 the Bishops depends on the circumstances.
"If it was a fair and impartial determination, I would not think it's wrong," Goldson said. "But if there was some partiality involved, than I would question the wisdom of it."