Monday, October 18, 2010

How one member of Congress milks the system

U. S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, is one of the nation’s foremost practitioners of old-style cronyism and race-based politics. But even though her current bid for a tenth term has drawn the notice of both Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, most Americans have never heard of her. That should change.

Like her colleagues in the Black Congressional Caucus, Maxine Waters and Charles Rangel, Rep. Johnson has landed in some ethics trouble. Specifically, Ms. Johnson awarded thousands of dollars in college scholarships to four of her own relatives and to a top aide’s two children since 2005.

It’s not taxpayer money; the funds come from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which is supported by private and corporate donations. Each year, each member of the caucus gets $10,000 to dole out for the scholarships. The foundation has strict anti-nepotism rules—which Ms. Johnson violated.

“Unknowingly,” she said at first when the Dallas Morning News began reporting on the matter. That was in late August. By late September she had repaid the non-profit foundation $31,146, and she was carefully parsing what she did and didn’t know. She said she did not sign a letter to the foundation asking that the scholarship money be sent directly to her relatives.

But there WERE letters—and they DID have her signature. She contends someone else in her office signed them, but she says she doesn’t know who the signer was. She also says she did not sign a document saying the applicants were not related to her. But she admits that she knew all along that her relatives were getting the benefits: “I knew it,” she said. “I knew it. There was no rule against it.”

Her reasoning? The nepotism rule was established years after the program began and no one told her that the rules had changed.

It’s a painful rationalization from a woman who has made politics work for herself for decades. Even though she is in the bottom quarter of House members based on wealth, she draws a pretty sum. She reports annual income of $22,000 per year from Social Security, a $35,000 pension from Texas taxpayers for her years in the State Legislature, and her annual salary of $174,000 for being in the Congress.

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