Congresswoman Apologizes For Misusing Funds

As the Congressional Black Caucus prepares to celebrate its 40th year on Capitol Hill this month, some prominent members of the group have been entangled in ethical scandals. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, has recently come under fire after acknowledging that she steered Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarship funds to her relatives. Congresswoman Johnson says she should have been more careful, but had no intention of violating ethics rules. And Todd Gillman, who broke the story for the Dallas Morning News, discusses his reporting and responds to Congresswoman Johnson’s suggestion that he has a personal grudge.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

We'll hear from the guys in the Barbershop today, talking about, among other things, the president's Oval Office talk on Iraq, and word just today of a bump up in the unemployment rate. All that's coming up a little bit later.

But first, TELL ME MORE's Friday political chat. As the Congressional Black Caucus prepares to celebrate its 40th year on Capitol Hill this month, prominent members of the group find themselves engulfed in scandal. New York Congressman Charlie Rangel and California Congresswoman Maxine Waters are both facing House ethics trials this fall.

But the latest controversy surrounds Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas. She recently came under fire for steering a total of 23 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarship awards to her own relatives and the relatives of a staffer, all in violation of the group's anti-nepotism rules.

Since this story broke earlier in the week, the congresswoman has repaid the foundation $31,000 from her personal funds. She joins us now to talk about the dustup. Congresswoman, welcome to the show.

Representative EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON (Democrat, Texas): Thank you very much.

COX: My first question for you is this, for those who have not heard or did not read your explanation of what it is that you did, tell us in your own words, what did you do?

Rep. JOHNSON: Well, it was my negligence and my lack of oversight to allow this to happen. I admitted that I made a mistake. I made a mistake without knowing I made a mistake. And I felt it was the proper thing to do was to pay it back and try to correct that mistake and move on.

COX: Now, you were the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus back during the Clinton years. You also served on the board of the separately...

Rep. JOHNSON: Right, that board was during the Bush years.

COX: During the Bush years, excuse me. And you also served on the board of the separately governed Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. And yet, congresswoman, you say that you didn't know the rules. How can that be?

Rep. JOHNSON: Well, as I indicated, it was my lack of knowledge of it. It has not been emphasized. But I'm not blaming anyone but myself, and I'm taking full responsibility.

COX: Even if you didn't know the rules, as you say, the former rules -the former rules, wouldn't you just know instinctively, common sense-wise and as a veteran politician, that this would not be something that would be kosher to do?

Rep. JOHNSON: Let me say that I handle numerous applications for scholarships of all types of scholarships. This is one of the smallest ones, and I'm not trying to demean this. But because there are so many that I help young people with, I just did not have the proper oversight. And I did not intend to make a mistake. When it was called to my attention that I had, I tried to correct it. Not just in this instance, I know that I'm not perfect. When attention is called to my mistakes, I try very hard to correct them. And I've tried to do this. And I can assure you that it will not happen again.

COX: Let me follow-up with this before I have another question for you about the response from your Congressional Black Caucus members. Is it a situation where you knew that your relatives were getting the money and you did not realize that it was a violation of the rules? Or did you not know that those specific individuals that were named, your grandson and others, were getting the money when you saw their names on the papers?

Rep. JOHNSON: Yes, I knew that they were getting some money. I did not know exactly how much, but I knew they were getting some. I did not know it broke any rules. When it was called to my attention just this past week and I saw the rules that came out end of 2008, and I intend to follow those rules.

COX: Congressman Donald Payne, a Democrat from New Jersey chairs the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. He has come out with some fairly scathing remarks about this ordeal saying that, quote, "There will be no self-dealing or nepotism in the awarding of college scholarships." What has he said to you personally?

Rep. JOHNSON: I have not talked to Donald Payne. The number of my colleagues have been in touch, but I have not talked with him.

COX: And what have they said to you?

Rep. JOHNSON: Well, many of them have been encouraging, indicating that they understand the load of work that we have. They understand how easily that could happen. I know the public probably doesn't understand that. And I'm concerned that the mistake was made. But, you know, what's being said to me is that you've paid the money back. Move on. We all know that you are not a dishonest person. And so, I've appreciated those many calls that I've received. And I've received so very many calls from my constituents.

COX: Are you embarrassed?

Rep. JOHNSON: I am embarrassed.

COX: One of the things that you were quoted in the story, printed in the Dallas Morning News, makes reference to a reporter who is going to be on this program in just a moment, his name is Todd Gillman, suggesting that he has been writing negative things about you because he has something personal against you that's been going on for a long, long time. Why do you say that?

Rep. JOHNSON: This is my opinion and I think the record reflects it. No matter what I've given him, he's never quoted me correctly. Earlier this year, he went all over my district asking people questions. He didn't find enough negative so he didn't write a story. And then this is his typical behavior. I don't know what I've done. I have been told by others that he was an extreme right wing person. I don't know that, other than I know that he has never quoted me correctly.

COX: My final question for you is this, you are in an election and you are heavily favored to win, according to the most recent polls. Do you think that your constituents will forgive you for this misstep on your part?

Rep. JOHNSON: I hope they will. I think most of my constituents know me. I think they know how hard I work for this district. And I think they know exactly how many areas that I've been of help to students, how many avenues that have been used to help students. This particular scholarship is an important part, but a very small part.

COX: Eddie Bernice Johnson is serving her ninth term in Congress. She represents the 30th Congressional District of Texas, which includes the city of Dallas. She joined us from her home office here in Washington, D.C., as she recovers from a recent surgery. Congresswoman, thank you very much for coming on and talking to us. And get well.

Rep. JOHNSON: Thank you very much for having me.

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