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Congressman Linked to Katrina Charity Controversy

By Marc Morano and Monisha Bansal
January 18, 2006

(CNSNews.com) -- The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, criticized on Dec. 22 for admitting that it had not distributed any of the estimated $400,000 it raised for Hurricane Katrina victims, now claims to have handed out most of the money on Dec. 9.

However, a Cybercast News Service investigation has uncovered a possible conflict of interest between the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the group that received the $290,000 grant. The CBCF dispersed the money to a group closely tied to CBCF chairman, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.). The grant has prompted one critic to charge that Jefferson was engaged in a professionally "incestuous" relationship.

On a separate matter, Jefferson is reportedly under criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, for possible illegal campaign fundraising.

Since March 2001, Jefferson has chaired the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), which was established in 1976 "as a non-partisan, non-profit, public policy, research and educational institute," according to the group's website. Jefferson's 2nd Congressional District, Louisiana's only black majority district, suffered some of the worst damage from Hurricane Katrina after the storm came ashore on Aug. 29, 2005.

In the storm's aftermath, amid criticism from liberal black civil rights organizations for the way the Bush administration was handling relief efforts, the CBCF announced that it would try to raise $1 million from American corporations for the Katrina victims.

But in late December, nearly four months after the storm struck and three months after the CBCF's Katrina Relief Fund was launched, a CBCF spokeswoman told Cybercast News Service that none of the nearly $400,000 raised to that point had been distributed.

"We are collecting all the way up through the very end of the year and then our board has set aside a committee who is going to administer the funds," CBCF spokeswoman Patty Rice said in December. She added that the distribution of the money would not begin until January or February of 2006, at the earliest.

The Dec. 22 Cybercast News Service article included criticism from Ken Boehm, chairman of the conservative National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), a group that monitors charitable giving.

Boehm pointed to the CBCF's own contention that the post-Katrina relief demands were immediate. "For whatever reasons they have failed to give away a single cent as of the week before Christmas," Boehm said in the Dec. 22 article. "It appears that the CBCF has failed to meet the standard that it set up itself for: timely aid to Katrina victims."

During the same week that the black conservative group Project 21 chastised the CBCF, the Foundation posted two more statements on its website. The first explained that the group actually distributed $290,000 on Dec. 9 to the "New Orleans-based Community of Faith for Economic Empowerment (COFFEE)" and the second boasted of a new $100,000 contribution from McDonald's Corporation to the Katrina Relief Fund.

When CBCF spokeswoman Patty Rice was asked on Jan. 10 to explain the discrepancy between her earlier version of the organization's plans and the latest statement, she said only that she was "intrigued" by the quotes attributed to her in the Dec. 22 Cybercast News Service article.

Jefferson's Link to COFFEE

The Community of Faith for Economic Empowerment "is right on the front lines providing crisis assistance to supplement rental payments for dislocated families and emergency food and clothing assistance," the recent CBCF statement issued sometime after Jan. 4, explained.

However, COFFEE was established "to implement" the New Orleans "With Ownership Wealth Initiative" (WOW), according to the COFFEE website, and the WOW program was launched by Rep. Jefferson in 2002.

COFFEE's links to Jefferson are so close that the chairman of its board of directors, Rev. Zebadee Bridges, was at the center of a controversy involving Jefferson and the so-called separation of church and state in 1999. Bridges reportedly used his pulpit at the Asia Baptist Church in New Orleans to endorse Jefferson for Louisiana governor and to encourage congregants to contribute to Jefferson's campaign.

In heading both the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which claims to have distributed the $290,000 and the WOW program, which is closely connected with the group (COFFEE) that received the funds, Jefferson has opened himself up to accusations of conflict of interest.

Mychal Massie, syndicated radio talk show host and member of Project 21, said Jefferson is "at best of questionable character." He pointed to the FBI's Aug. 4, 2005, raid of Jefferson's homes in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., his car and his campaign treasurer's office. The investigation led Brett Pfeffer, the congressman's former legislative director, to plead guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges on Jan. 11.

"This is a confluence of absurdity and disbelief of the incestuous-ness," Massie said of the CBCF dispersing funds to COFFEE.

But when Melanie Roussell, Jefferson's congressional communications director, spoke with Cybercast News Service on Jan. 10, she denied that there was any conflict of interest on Jefferson's part.

"These monies did not go to WOW. COFFEE is a conglomerate, an umbrella group of churches, which is why the money went to COFFEE so that that money could then be distributed to those churches," Roussell said.

She added that the funds were distributed over a few weeks to the Louisiana churches and individuals in those congregations. One church received $400 for each congregant, with Jefferson delivering some of the checks himself, Roussell said. Some $20,000 to $30,000 remains from the $290,000 grant and "the rest will go to people in Mississippi," she explained.

Roussell also lashed out at Cybercast News Service for its reporting on the controversy.

"The fact that it is even being implied that there were any unethical dealings in this is appalling and completely incorrect and inaccurate, just like your first story was," she said.

The discrepancy between the two CBCF statements on the distribution of the funds was caused by a simple communications mix-up between Jefferson's congressional office and the CBCF office, Roussell said.

But Massie rejected Roussell's explanation. "If they are so incompetent as to have the spokeswoman for CBCF articulate as fact, that which was not fact, unbeknownst to her, they are too incompetent to even exist and should have their charters revoked."

Anyone questioning the credibility of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and its distribution of $290,000 to the Community of Faith for Economic Empowerment should be aware of another defense tactic, Massie said.

"All too often a plea of incompetence is used as the catcher's mitt for an overt or clandestine act of deceit and dishonesty. I would not be inclined to believe that Patty Rice made an incompetent statement even by definition. I believe there is enough questionable goings on for this to be investigated," Massie told Cybercast News Service.

Benjamin Bell, president of COFFEE, added in a Jan. 11 email to Cybercast News Service that "a report of the total effort is being prepared as well as a distribution of the final dollars."

(Randy Hall contributed to this article.)

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