Longtime Dallas congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson has awarded thousands of dollars in college scholarships to four relatives and a top aide's two children since 2005, using foundation funds set aside for black lawmakers' causes.
The recipients were ineligible under anti-nepotism rules of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which provided the money. And all of the awards violated a foundation requirement that scholarship winners live or study in a caucus member's district.
Johnson, a Democrat, denied any favoritism when asked about the scholarships last week. Two days later, she acknowledged in a statement released by her office that she had violated the rules but said she had done so "unknowingly" and would work with the foundation to "rectify the financial situation."
Initially, she said, "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." Had there been more "very worthy applicants in my district," she added, "then I probably wouldn't have given it" to the relatives.
Her handling of the scholarships puts a rare spotlight on the program and how it is overseen. Caucus members have great leeway in how they pick winners and how aggressively they publicize the awards. Some lawmakers promote the program online, for instance, while Johnson does not.
Philanthropy experts said such lax oversight of scholarship money doesn't match the standards for charities.
The foundation – which is supported by private and corporate donations, not taxpayer money – provides $10,000 annually for each member of the Congressional Black Caucus to award in scholarships. Each gets to decide how many ways to split the money and whether to create a judging panel, choose personally or delegate the task.
Johnson, a former chairwoman of the caucus who has served on the board that oversees the foundation, said she wasn't fully aware of the program rules and emphasized that she didn't "personally benefit."
In her interview with The Dallas Morning News on Wednesday, Johnson said "hundreds of kids got scholarships since I have been here." Her district covers much of southern Dallas County, including many of the area's less affluent precincts.
"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 said.
The foundation's general counsel, Amy Goldson, said Saturday that the scholarships Johnson awarded violated eligibility rules regarding relatives and residency and are "of great concern."
The program "operates on an honor system," so the foundation hadn't known that money went to Johnson's relatives, she said. But when a recipient fails to meet eligibility requirements or "misrepresents their eligibility, the scholarship funds must be returned."
Further, Goldson said, the failure of a lawmaker or aides to follow eligibility rules "is a violation of the letter and spirit of [the Foundation's] requirements."
"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 said.
Apart from the residency requirements, the scholarship rules state that students must have a 2.5-grade-point average, but there are no explicit judging criteria.
Johnson awarded nine to 11 scholarships a year from 2005 to 2008, the most recent years for which information was available. Each of those years, three or four winners were related to her or her district director, Rod Givens. Johnson said she divided the available funds equally among recipients, and every qualified applicant got a scholarship.
The foundation asks applicants to certify that they aren't related to those associated with the caucus or the foundation, but it does not specify which relationships that includes.
Scholarships have gone to two of the congresswoman's grandsons, Kirk and David Johnson; to two of her great-nephews, Gregory and Preston Moore; and to Givens' son and daughter. Givens did not respond to requests for comment, and none of the scholarship recipients could be reached.
'Not ... proper'
Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, said that, ideally, scholarship and grant decisions should be made by disinterested arbiters, preferably on the basis of excellence or need.
Johnson's system "is not an appropriate or proper way to distribute scholarship funds," he said.
"It's totally fine if the congressman or -woman wants to reach inside their own pocket and give, but to use money that people got tax deductions on to then benefit their family – it would just be setting up nonprofit organizations to get tax benefits to put their kids through college. It would wreck the whole system if that kind of thing were allowed," Borochoff said.
He said a scholarship with so few criteria for recipients would normally attract dozens if not hundreds of applicants if it were well publicized.
"There should be outrage because there are probably students who are more deserving and more needy of the funds," Borochoff said.
The combined scholarship total for the six students over four years was less than $20,000, based on Johnson's accounting of the scholarships. That appears to be less than half the total Johnson awarded over that time. Of 43 scholarships her office awarded between 2005 and 2008, 15 went to relatives of Johnson or Givens, according to foundation annual reports.
Johnson, in the interview Wednesday, dismissed concerns about the propriety of giving to her relatives or her staffers.
"We look at the kids that apply, look at their qualifications, and if they have the application there with all the ingredients, we try to help," she said. "I doubt if there is anybody in my district going to question me giving $1,000 to a kid to help him with college."
The congresswoman, 74, who is expected to handily win a 10th term this fall over a relatively unknown Republican, said flatly that there was no favoritism for her aide's children or for her grandsons or great-nephews.
"Same application. Same requirements," she said.
Rules clear, lawyer says
The Congressional Black Caucus consists of one U.S. senator and 41 House members – among them Johnson and two other Texans, Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green, both of Houston. All are Democrats.
The foundation is a separate, nonprofit charitable organization whose board at any time includes only a few caucus members.
The foundation, which awarded $716,000 to 556 students last year, has been criticized for spending less on scholarships than on galas and conferences that allow lobbyists to rub elbows with influential lawmakers. Fundraising for the caucus itself and its members is tightly regulated, but the closely related foundation faces few restrictions.
In 2002, Johnson chaired the caucus and served on its board.
She continued to serve on the foundation board through 2005 – a year when both great-nephews and grandson Kirk Johnson received scholarships through her office, despite a rule explicitly forbidding awards to relatives of foundation board members.
Goldson, the foundation attorney, said the rules make clear that applicants cannot be related to any member of the black caucus, the foundation's staff, directors, members of its corporate advisory council or any sponsor, a list that includes scores of major companies. "Any misrepresentation will result in disqualification of the application," she said.
Each caucus member who participates in the foundation's scholarship program is responsible for publicizing the competition locally. Some do so more aggressively than others. Many list the opportunity on their official U.S. House websites, often under a tab dedicated to "students."
Johnson's Web site makes no mention of the scholarships.
"This has been going on long before there was any websites," she said. "We send information to the high schools. I haven't known anybody who didn't know about it, to tell you the truth."
Counselors at four southern Dallas high schools didn't return calls last week to discuss the matter.
Selection process varies
The foundation raises the funds, sets requirements and provides application forms. But the process for picking winners varies among lawmakers.
Apart from the GPA of at least 2.5, students must submit personal and financial information, a transcript, letters of recommendation, an essay on goals, and a copy of their federal student aid report to their local member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Johnson said aides in Dallas – where Givens is her senior aide – review applications and forward to her all those that qualify.
"When they come to this office, there's hardly much decision to be made. We find out how many applicants, how much money, divide it up, send it in," she said. "I've not given any money where there was no need. And I don't think a $1,000 scholarship's going to do too much, but it helps when you need it."
Johnson's assets – not counting a blind trust that owns a newsstand concession at Dallas Love Field – amounted to less than $97,000 in 2008. Her wealth puts her in the bottom quarter of House members, according to Center for Responsive Politics data. Apart from her $174,000-a-year congressional salary, she reported a $35,000 pension for her previous service in the state Legislature, and $22,000 from Social Security last year.
In doling out their scholarship money, some lawmakers pick one winner, others as many as 18.
Johnson gave out nine scholarships in 2005, 11 in 2006 and 10 in 2007. Every qualified applicant got a piece of the pie, she said, though her office did not provide details on the number of applications submitted each year.
Johnson said she never asked the foundation or anyone else if it was acceptable for her to award scholarships to relatives.
"It's never come up with me," she said. "But let me just say this: None of these people are my immediate family. Immediate family doesn't include grandchildren."
'As best I could'
But the Johnsons, Moores and Givenses weren't eligible under other foundation rules requiring recipients to reside or go to school in a congressional district represented by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
None of the six lived or attended school in Johnson's district. They lived in districts represented by white Republicans.
The Johnsons lived in Plano, in a district represented by Rep. Sam Johnson (no relation). The Moores lived in Manor, near Austin, Rep. Michael McCaul's district. The Givenses, who live in Mesquite, are represented by Rep. Jeb Hensarling.
The recipients' colleges – Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Baylor in Waco, Texas Christian in Fort Worth, Texas State in San Marcos and Sam Houston State in Huntsville – also fall outside any district held by a caucus member.
"I haven't seen those rules," Johnson said, "but let me just say this: I take the responsibility for as many kids as I can help in the North Texas area."
Even though her grandchildren grew up near Austin, she added, there was nothing untoward about giving scholarships to students outside her district.
"There have been many others," she said, including a student from Oklahoma , whom she helped at the request of Sen. James Inhofe, a conservative Republican.
District residency, Johnson said, has never been a critical factor in her selection process.
"I've tried to use it as best I could, but when there's a needy kid living outside my district, and somebody recommends or calls and asks for help, I try to give it if I can, and I've been doing it 18 years," she said.
"If there had been very worthy applicants in my district, then I probably wouldn't have given it" to relatives, she added. "But, when you have enough money to give one additional scholarship and that person's well-qualified, I have never considered it a violation of anything to give a little help."
James Ferris, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California, said most nonprofits seek to avoid even the perception of conflicts of interest by establishing review boards to help make selections on scholarships or grants.
They avoid sole decision makers.
"In this case, it sounds like the power to make those grants rests in one person," he said. "The member can allocate it without any kind of oversight or checks and balances. That's sort of the nub of the problem."
Ferris said the system invites skepticism.
"Basically, it's whether you're using money that was raised in the public interest for private gain," he said.
Researcher Angelica Cortez in Dallas contributed to this report.