Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dallas Joining Race to the Bottom?

Does Dallas have a permanent inferiority complex? As long as I’ve lived in north Texas, Big D has been trying to prove it’s good enough – or bad enough – to play with the big boys when it comes to just about everything, especially urban sophistication.

Pick anything to do with New York City – Dallas’ archrival (but only it its own eyes) – or Los Angeles, and Dallas has to try and be glitzier and splashier. Take its skyscrapers, its shopping, its restaurants, its crime… And now, after local reps from both New York and Los Angeles got into deep ethics trouble, would J.R. Ewing's hometown be far behind?

Enter Dallas’ own Eddie Bernice Johnson who, as local media recently discovered, granted over thirty thousand dollars in exclusive scholarships to children of her own family and staff. Now, granted, shady scholarships hardly compares with tax evasion, hogging scarce rent-controlled apartments, or bank fraud, does it? At least Johnson wanted kids to get a college education.

But it turns out she’s now the one getting an education.

What a Train Wreck Looks Like

First, let’s consider the facts: Johnson, a nine-term veteran representative from one of Dallas’ poorest Congressional districts, violated ethics rules starting in 2005 by distributing 23 scholarhips to four of her own grandkids and two children of staffers. The money came from the Congressional Black Caucus which doles out $10,000 a year in college scholarships. So for at least half of the last six years, all of the available scholarship money went to Johnson's friends and family.

According to their website, the Congressional Black Caucus was founded 40 years ago to “positively influence the course of events pertinent to African Americans and others of similar experience and situation." Its current chair, Barbara Lee, boasts that they consider themselves to be "the conscience of the congress.”

I see.

Have I mentioned that Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters are also members of the Congressional Black Caucus?

Johnson's excuses have ranged from the dubious to the downright absurd. First, she claimed no knowledge of the rules for handing out scholarship money, but couldn't explain why she didn't bother to figure out what they were. Second, when asked if she ever thought that there might be a conflict of interest or ethics problem with awarding scholarships to her own kinfolk, particularly in this era of procedural watchdogs and congressional scandals, she admitted that no, she's ethicaly-challenged. She actually admitted to a reporter that "I did not have an ethical alarm go off" when she claimed these scholarships for her inner circle.

Third, after word got out that five of the recipients didn't even meet basic residency requirements for the scolarships, Johnson had the gall to rationalize her ethics vacuum by saying there weren't any other people in her district eligible for the scholarships anyway. Can you imagine a constituency being willing to even consider a candidate for office after that candidate slams your collective intelligence in the media?

Finally, after she paid back the $31,000 dollars in illicit scholarships and insinuated that it was a mere pittance anyway, a reporter asked her why she cheated the system to begin with, if she considered the amount so paltry. Johnson accused the press of trying to smear her reputation (too late) and refusing to let the issue fade away.

Oh - did I mention this is an election year? And that for the first time in ages, Johnson is facing a serious challenge by a black Republican minister with a squeaky-clean record of genuine civic engagement? That's why the press won't let it fade away.

Happy (Paper) Trails

Yesterday, somebody anonymously provided two letters to the campaign office of Johnson's opponent, Stephen Broden. Although Johnson had tried to shift at least some of the blame onto her chief of staff, claiming she couldn't possibly be held responsible for all of the decisions made in her office, these two letters bearing Johnson's own signature were addressed to the Congressional Black Caucus, asking that the scholarship monies be paid directly to the students, not their respective colleges. Once they're authenticated, the letters will pretty much prove that Johnson personally orchestrated major elements of the scheme - something she has tried to deny.

Oh, those nasty paper trails.

So now, not only has Johnson gone on record as admitting to have played the scholarship system to her personal advantage, demeaning her constituents, and having poor ethics, she's also brazenly lied about the extent of her culpability at the expense of her already-maligned chief of staff.

She'll Probably Still Win

Local political pundits predict her constitutents - who Johnson herself dismissed as non-college-material louts - won't care enough about the truth to vote her out of office. And she still thinks she's qualified for yet another term in Congress. Well, I guess it depends on what she means by "qualified."

First, it was New York's flamboyant Charlie Rangel, charged with a laundry list of ethics lapses including a collection of rent-controlled apartments in one of Harlem's best residential towers. Next it was California's beligerant Maxine Waters, who insists her husband's investments in a bank she favored meant absolutely nothing. Indeed, Johnson is setting the bar pretty low if Rangel and Waters define the qualifications for being in Congress.

But as I said, Dallas has always languished in the shadows of bigger burgs like New York and Los Angeles. It was only a matter of time before somebody here got caught following Rangel's and Waters' lead.

I suppose we north Texans should be grateful Johnson's sticky fingers actually did try to improve the lives of teenagers, instead of lining her own pockets like her mentors did.


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