Rep. Bishop under scrutiny for scholarships to family

WASHINGTON -- An education foundation connected to the influential Congressional Black Caucus is re-examining its scholarship programs after finding out Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany apparently awarded foundation scholarships to his family members.

"From here on out, we will re-evaluate our scholarship programs in terms of practices and guidelines to be sure ... this won't happen again," said Muriel Cooper, a spokeswoman for the foundation. "We want to make sure there is no self-dealing or nepotism in awarding these scholarships."

Records from the group show that Bishop, a nine-term congressman who is active in the Congressional Black Caucus and who's up for re-election this year, apparently awarded scholarships to his stepdaughter and his niece in 2003 and 2005.

Reached by phone, Bishop declined to discuss the scholarship controversy. In a statement issued late Friday, his campaign manager said the congressman followed the guidelines about scholarships in place at the time, but would nonetheless give back to the foundation an amount equal to the scholarships his family members got. He also accused Bishop's Republican challenger, Mike Keown, of starting a smear campaign by spreading news of the scholarship controversy.

"This is about nothing more than Mike Keown scoring cheap political points by attacking Rep. Bishop and his family," campaign spokesman Tim Turner said in a statement. "To Mike Keown, apparently nothing is off-limits, even attacking someone’s family."

Keown's campaign fired back by assailing Bishop's character.

"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," said Andrew O'Shea, campaign manager for Keown, who is a state representative and a Baptist preacher. "How can you blame a lack of character and judgment on the part of Sanford Bishop on Rep. Mike Keown?"

News of Bishop's scholarship awards comes amid ongoing scrutiny of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Democratic U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas recently was pressured to pay back $31,000 to the foundation after reports that she awarded scholarships to relatives and to children of a staffer.

Under the scholarship program, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are given $10,000 annually to award needy recipients in their home districts for college.

Since at least 2008, scholarship applicants must fill out a form, write an essay -- and certify that they are not related to a caucus member or staffer, according to Cooper.

A program from a 2004 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation legislative retreat shows that Bishop awarded 2003 scholarships to Aayesha Owens and Emmundia Whitaker, among others. Aayesha Owens Reese is Bishop's stepdaughter; Whitaker is the niece of his wife, Vivian Creighton Bishop, according to press reports.

This isn't the first time Bishop has been hit by allegations of nepotism.

Last year, he was accused of steering funds he had secured as "earmarks" as a member of the House Appropriations Committee to a Muscogee County youth group that employed stepdaughter Aayesha Owens Reese and her husband, Stephen Reese.

Bishop said at the time that he had no idea his stepdaughter worked for the Muscogee County Junior Marshal program, and that when he did learn about it, he immediately directed her to quit her job. At the time, Owens Reese also was apparently working for the Fulton County district attorney's office.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation opened a review of the case, but said it found no evidence of criminal intent.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.