Watchdogs not sure Johnson will face ethics probe over scholarship scandal

Watchdogs are divided over whether the ethics committee should immediately investigate Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas).

Johnson has been accused of awarding thousands of dollars in college scholarships to four relatives as well as the child of a top aide over the past 5 years.

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Johnson reportedly used Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Foundation funds to dole out the scholarships, even though the recipients were ineligible under the nonprofit’s rules, according to a report by The Dallas Morning News.

Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, said it appears that Johnson used her position to benefit a family member, which at the very least may have violated the Code of Ethics for Government Service.

But Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, believes any investigation should begin with CBC Foundation executives because Johnson violated its rules. Sloan believes the foundation should do a full investigation and issue a public report on the circumstances surrounding the scholarships.

“While awarding scholarships to relatives is inexcusable in any event, the more serious question is whether Rep. Johnson knew she was violating the rules when she made the awards,” Sloan said.

If the foundation determines Johnson deliberately violated rules, Sloan said a CBC member should refer the matter to the ethics committee to determine whether her conduct "reflects creditably" on the House. Sloan also said the CBC should consider appointing an outside counsel who has served as a prosecutor to investigate and determine which rules or laws may have been broken.

Craig Holman of Public Citizen said he doesn’t believe the story will prompt an ethics probe because Johnson admitted mistakenly violating the foundation’s nepotism rules and appears ready to reimburse the funds.

“The only issue that could generate further investigation is whether the mistakes were intentional,” Holman said. “But given that there is no evidence to that effect, she has remedied the problem.”

Johnson has denied playing favorites in selecting scholarship recipients, but acknowledged violating the rules even though she said she did so “unknowingly” and would work with the foundation to “rectify the financial situation.”

The CBC Foundation, which is supported by corporate donations, provided $10,000 for each member of the CBC to award scholarships. Each member determines how to split the money and whether the students are chosen by a panel of judges, the member or a designated person.

Johnson awarded nine to 11 scholarships each year between 2005 and 2008. Each of those years, three or four winners were related to her or her district director, Rod Givens, the Morning News reported. Scholarship recipients include two of Johnson’s grandsons and two of her great-nephews, as well as Givens’s son and daughter.