By JOHN BRESNAHAN | 9/9/10 10:23 PM EDT
Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) awarded three scholarships from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to his stepdaughter and wife’s niece between 2003 and 2005, according to records from the nonprofit group.
Bishop is the second Democrat found to have funneled CBC Foundation scholarship funds to relatives, threatening to turn the program into a larger political problem for the party. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) recently paid back $31,000 to the foundation for scholarships that she improperly awarded to various relatives and children of a top staffer.
Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), chairman of the CBC Foundation, has promised an “extensive audit of the scholarship program” run by the organization.
Bishop, though, also appears to have favored family members with CBC scholarships.
In 2003, Emmaundia Whitaker, the niece of Vivian Creighton Bishop, who is Bishop’s wife, was awarded an education scholarship. She was also given a similar award in 2005.
And in 2003, Aayesha Owens Reese, the congressman’s stepdaughter, was granted an education scholarship as well.
The congressman’s wife is a longtime state employee in Georgia. She currently serves as clerk of the municipal court in Columbus, Ga.
A Bishop spokesman insisted the Georgia Democrat did not violate CBC Foundation rules that were in place at that time by awarding scholarships to family members.
“It is our understanding that the CBC Foundation in 2008 revisited the guidelines and processes for its scholarship programs, and as such, included language to clarify that CBC family members are not eligible to receive the scholarships,” said Ashton McRae, Bishop’s spokesman, in a statement released by the office. “These scholarships … were awarded prior to 2008.”
Muriel Cooper, a spokeswoman for the CBC Foundation, said the organization “has and will continue to revisit guidelines and processes for its scholarship programs and, as such, has included language to clarify qualifications.”
Since 2008, scholarship applicants have been required to formally certify “that they are not a family member of any member of [the] CBC, CBCF staff or its Board of Directors, corporate advisory board or any CBCF sponsoring entity,” Cooper added.
It is unclear how much the CBC Foundation scholarships were worth, but they typically run in the $1,000 to $2,000 range, according to media reports. Each CBC member is giving $10,000 annually to dole out to scholarship applicants.
The CBC’s Cooper said the amount of the awards “is left up to the individual districts” and declined to provide information on how much Reese and Whitaker received via Bishop.
Applicants for the CBC foundations scholarships — which are funded by big companies like General Mills and Wal-Mart — are required to live or attend school in the lawmakers’ districts, have at least a 2.5 grade point average and “exhibit leadership ability and participate in community service activities,” among other restrictions.
For instance, in order to get money under the “CBC Spouses Cheerios Brand Health Initiative Scholarship,” as both Reese and Whitaker did, applicants must be planning to “pursue a degree in the fields of medicine, engineering, technology, nutrition or other health related studies,” according to the CBC Foundation’s website.
Information on what colleges Reese and Whitaker were attending at the time of the scholarship awards or what degrees they were pursuing was not available.
However, Reese was working in the Fulton County District Attorney’s office last year, according to news reports. She and her husband are residents of Lithonia, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, Sanford’s website states.
Bishop is the second prominent CBC member found to have steered CBC Foundation scholarships to family members or relatives of top aides.
Johnson repaid $31,000 to the foundation last week after The Dallas Morning News reported that she had steered 23 scholarships to relatives and the children of a top staffer.
Melanie Sloan, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, said Bishop and Johnson were engaged in “reprehensible conduct.”
“Any member of Congress should know that if there is a chance to award scholarship money, it shouldn’t go to family members,” Sloan said.
Bishop was also caught up in a scandal in 2009 when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation began a probe into whether a youth program operated by Muscogee County Marshal’s Office improperly spent federal funds after it hired Bishop’s stepdaughter and her husband. Bishop had earmarked more than $190,000 for that youth program.
Reese and her husband, Stephen, were paid more than $14,000 by that program, although they lived in the Atlanta area, more than 100 miles from Columbus, where the program operated.
The GBI later ruled that the hiring of the pair was legal.