A North Texas congresswoman who broke scholarship rules by awarding money to her relatives and an aide's children said Wednesday that she didn't shortchange others to benefit her own family.
The Dallas Morning News reported earlier this week that Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson had violated foundation rules against nepotism and making awards to students living or attending schools outside her district.
The newspaper reported Johnson had given about a third of her scholarships since 2005 to two grandsons and two great-nephews and to the son and daughter of her top aide in Dallas. The newspaper reported that 23 of those scholarships violated eligibility rules.
Johnson, who has represented a Dallas-area district since 2005, said in a written statement Wednesday that she has repaid about $31,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
Besides violating the ban on awards to relatives of lawmakers, the scholarships from Johnson apparently violated a foundation rule that recipients live or study in the member's congressional district.
In a letter Wednesday to the newspaper that her office released to other news media, Johnson repeated her earlier statement that she had violated the foundation's rules unknowingly. She also said the story was a source of criticism of her.
"This for me has been quite challenging because I believe it was intended to cast me in an unfair light that was intended to distort my image before my constituents and those who know of my personal commitment to public service," the congresswoman wrote. "This article gave the appearance that I overlooked the needs of a segment of my constituency to benefit my family; this was not the case."
However, foundation attorney Amy Goldson pointed out that the students, the lawmaker awarding the foundation scholarships or the lawmaker's designee must certify that the recipients are not related to the lawmaker.
Meanwhile, the matter has prompted the foundation to begin an internal audit of the scholarship program, which awarded $716,000 in scholarships to 556 students in 2009.
The foundation's chairman, Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., said Tuesday that neither the foundation nor the Congressional Black Caucus "will allow unethical behavior in the awarding of scholarships or any programs that are designed to benefit the community."
The foundation is a tax-exempt organization that is run by its own staff, but with strong ties to the caucus of black lawmakers. It was formed in 1976 when there were few black members of Congress and congressional staff members.
It aims to develop future black leaders, research issues important to blacks and promote good health. It has numerous corporate sponsors. Of its 32 officers and board members, 11 are House members.
The foundation has an annual golf and tennis event, a prayer breakfast and a legislative conference.