Bishop to repay scholarships

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- The campaign for U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, says controversial scholarships given through the Congressional Black Caucus, of which he is a member, to the congressman's relatives and to the wife of a longtime aide will be repaid.

Calling the claims of wrongdoing against Bishop "outrageous accusations," Bishop's Campaign Manager Tim Turner said in an e-mailed statement Friday that Bishop would repay the scholarships in question. Turner, who blamed the controversy on Bishop's Republican opponent for the Second Congressional District seat, did not say whether the money would be repaid from Bishop's personal funds. The amount of the scholarships also is not known.

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarships, however, were first reported by Washington-based Politico.

Members of the caucus are allowed to award $10,000 in scholarships each year. According to the nonprofit foundation's records, Bishop awarded his stepdaughter, Aayesha Owens Reese, a scholarship in 2003. He awarded foundation scholarships in 2003 and 2005 to his niece, Emmaundia J. Whitaker. Also in 2003, Sherletha A. Thomas, who is now the wife of Bishop's longtime district staff director, Kenneth Cutts, received a scholarship. Cutts and Thomas were not married at the time she received the money.

"This is about nothing more than Mike Keown scoring cheap political points by attacking Representative Bishop and his family. To Mike Keown, apparently nothing is off limits, even attacking someone's family. This is a scholarship opportunity that has helped so many young people and Representative Bishop followed the guidelines in place at the time awards were made. Mike Keown is trying to tarnish this program's reputation with misleading attacks," Turner wrote.

A statement from Keown Campaign Manager Andrew O'Shea was e-mailed to The Herald just before 9 p.m. Friday calling Turner's assertions "reprehensible."

"It is reprehensible and morally wrong for Sanford Bishop and his campaign staff to blame the fact that he has enriched his family not only through scholarships but federal earmarks on Mike Keown. How can you blame a lack of character and judgment on the part of Sanford Bishop on Mike Keown? It is obvious to me that Sanford Bishop has been in Washington, D.C., so long that he thinks breaking the law is someone else's fault," he wrote.

Guidelines for scholarship disbursement were not adopted by the CBC until after Bishop awarded those questionable scholarships. That explanation, however, wasn't good enough for one political watchdog organization.

Melanie Sloan, director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told The Associated Press that members of Congress shouldn't need such rules to know that awarding scholarship money to their families is inappropriate.

"Giving scholarships to your family is clearly wrong," Sloan said. "How could you not know better? All of their explanations and rationalizations ring hollow."

The head of the caucus has called for an audit of the program after a second congressman, Rep. Eddie Johnson, D-Texas, gave $31,000 worth of scholarships to family and then repaid them.

At a Southwest Georgia appearance Friday, Bishop would not comment about the accusation, but said his campaign officials would release a statement.

In response to Friday's report, the foundation reissued a statement from last week that the organization is auditing the program and will demand accountability from its members.

"Neither the foundation nor the CBC will allow unethical behavior in the awarding of scholarships or any programs that are designed to benefit the community," said Rep. Donald Payne, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the foundation.

Last year, Bishop came under scrutiny when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation looked into a nonprofit youth program to which Bishop steered nearly $200,000 in earmarks.

The group in Columbus was employing two of his relatives, including Reese. A county audit raised red flags after finding that Reese and her husband were paid more than $14,000 by the program, even though they lived some 100 miles away.

Authorities ultimately said they found nothing illegal and closed the investigation.

More recently, Bishop's campaign said the congressman reprimanded an aide who told a farmer in an angry voicemail not to bother asking Bishop's office for farm aid anymore. The aide claimed the farmer uttered a racial slur toward Bishop. But the farmer said he simply told the congressman he wouldn't vote for him.

Bishop's press secretary also apologized in July for sending campaign-related material through the congressman's taxpayer-funded e-mail and posting it on his congressional website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.