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CORRUPTION

By   /   September 24, 2011  /   Comments

Staff reports

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop is among 19 federal legislators named in a Washington, D.C., watchdog group’s corruption report. Bishop, D-Columbus and Albany, was targeted due to his awarding of Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) scholarships to family members and to employees’ relatives, after his stepdaughter received congressional funds in a separate situation.

Fourteen legislators were named as “Most Corrupt Members of Congress” in the seventh annual report issued by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Bishop was among five others named to CREW’s “Dishonorable Mention” list for allegedly using their office for personal gain. The 19 lawmakers identified in the report either violated the law or showed lack of regard for congressional ethics and rules, according to CREW.

“CREW’s definition of corruption goes beyond assessing whether someone technically violated a criminal law,” the report states. “It encompasses public officials who fail to act responsibility and ethically, and who instead place a personal or special interests before those of the public.”

Twelve Republicans and seven Democrats were named to the lists; Albany’s other federal legislators, Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, are not cited.

Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director, said the most shocking ethical violators on the list are Reps. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) because they clearly broke the law.

Also listed in the report are Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), Frank Guinta (R-N.H.), Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), David Rivera (R-Fla.), Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

Listed with Bishop as “dishonorable mentions” category are Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Shelley Berkeley (D-Nev.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), whom Sloan said was the “most shameful” instance in the report.

“Congressional approval ratings are at an all-time low, and one look at this collection of Washington’s worst shows why,” Sloan said in a statement. “Neither political party has a monopoly on shady conduct. In fact, it’s the only thing that seems bipartisan these days.”

Following is an excerpt from the CREW report regarding Bishop:

The CBCF is a nonprofit charitable group that operates separately from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). The foundation is financed by large corporate donors, and provides $10,000 in scholarship funds annually for each CBC member to distribute to students in their district. The amount of the scholarships can vary, but generally falls between $1,000 and $2,000.

            Between 2001 and 2005, Rep. Bishop awarded at least eight scholarships to people with connections to him, his office, or his wife, Columbus Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop. Rep. Bishop gave a scholarship to his stepdaughter, Aayesha Owens Reese, in 2003. He also awarded Emmaundia Whitaker, his wife’s niece, scholarships in 2003 and 2005. In addition, Rep. Bishop gave several scholarships to his and his wife’s employees’ relatives. In 2001, he awarded a scholarship to Bonica Smith, the daughter of his wife’s deputy. In 2003, Rep. Bishop granted a scholarship to Kelli Blair, the daughter of Columbus Municipal Court Deputy Clerk Shirley Blair. Rep. Bishop awarded one scholarship to Tiffany Tisdale, the niece of Rep. Bishop’s field representative, Doris Gillispie, and another to Jonathan Alston, a former congressional intern, temporary employee in Rep. Bishop’s office, and campaign volunteer, even though he didn’t live in Rep. Bishop’s district. Rep. Bishop also gave a scholarship to Sherletha Thomas, who once worked for Ms. Bishop and is now married to Rep. Bishop’s district director, Kenneth Cutts.

            According to foundation officials, lawmakers generally use selection committees to pick scholarship winners. Rep. Bishop said he never used such a committee, but the process he did follow to choose the scholarship recipients is unclear. Rep. Bishop told the Associated Press he had not known about the scholarships awarded to his stepdaughter and niece before news reports surfaced, and “was not involved in that at all.” He said that either officials at the foundation or a fundraising group of CBCF lawmakers’ spouses gave out the scholarships without his participation. Mrs. Bishop chaired the fundraising spouses group from 2003 to 2005, the time period coinciding with the majority of the questionable scholarship awards. Rep. Bishop confirmed Mrs. Bishop “had a role in the selection process,” though he did not provide details. Rep. Bishop also stressed that the CBCF’s rules at the time did not explicitly prohibit scholarships for family members.

            In contrast, CBCF attorney Amy Goldson said it was long understood that scholarships shouldn’t be directed to relatives, even before the CBCF added explicit restrictions against nepotism in 2008. Ms. Goldson said, “Would [CBC members] be happy to admit in public that we’re raising this money because we want to give this to our relatives? Nope, this is to help deserving young students who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.”

            In August 2010, following news reports of CBC members awarding scholarships to relatives and other recipients with whom they had personal connections, the CBCF said it would conduct an internal audit of its scholarship program. Results have not yet been made public. In September 2010, Rep. Bishop agreed to repay the CBCF $6,350 to cover the cost of the scholarships awarded to his stepdaughter and niece. He does not appear to have repaid the costs of the other scholarships.

            Potential Violations

            Members of the House are prohibited from “taking any official actions for the prospect of personal gain for themselves or anyone else.” House members are directed to adhere to 5 C.F.R. 2635.702(a), issued by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics for the Executive Branch, which provides: An employee shall not use or permit use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office in a manner that is intended to coerce or induce another person . . . to provide any benefit, financial or otherwise, to himself or to friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.

            By using his position as a member of the CBC to award scholarships to family members and relatives of his and his wife’s employees, Rep. Bishop appears to have violated 5 C.F.R. 2635.702(a).

            Conduct Not Reflecting Creditably on the House

            House Rule 23 requires all members of the House to conduct themselves “at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House.” This ethics standard is considered to be “the most comprehensive provision” of the code. When this section was first adopted, the Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct of the 90th Congress noted it was included within the Code to deal with “flagrant” violations of the law that reflect on “Congress as a whole,” and that might otherwise go unpunished. This rule has been relied on by the committee in numerous prior cases in which the committee found unethical conduct including: the failure to report campaign contributions, making false statements to the committee, criminal convictions for bribery, or accepting illegal gratuities,30 and accepting gifts from persons with interest in legislation in violation of the gift rule.

                By using his position as a member of the CBC to award scholarships to family members and relatives of his employees Rep. Bishop acted in a manner that brings discredit to the House.

The report notes that Bishop has faced other questions about official actions benefitting family members, including an instance of his stepdaughter being paid from congressionally directed funds. That misstep occurred in 2009 when a routine payroll audit found his stepdaughter and son-in-law were employed by the Muscogee County Junior Marshal’s program at the same time Bishop earmarked nearly $200,000 to the Muscogee County Marshal’s Office. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation investigated the matter and found no wrongdoing.

 

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About the author

Owner / Editor / Writer

Tom Knighton is the publisher of The Albany Journal. In November, 2011, he became the first blogger to take over a newspaper anywhere in the world. In August of 2012, he made the difficult decision to take the Journal out of print circulation and become an online news agency, a first for the Albany area.

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