Questions for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation

Project 21 has some questions for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation:

Charity Chief Commended for Promise to Account for Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Grant; Project 21 Members Urge CBCF to Be Similarly Forthcoming Black activists are applauding the New Orleans non-profit “Community of Faith for Economic Empowerment,” commonly known as COFFEE, for pledging to make public a full report on how Katrina aid monies it apparently received from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation are being spent.

Members of the black leadership network Project 21 now call upon the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation itself to resolve lingering questions about the disbursal of Hurricane Katrina aid raised by the CBCF.

After Congressional Black Caucus members criticized the Bush Administration on September 2 for allegedly-inadequate Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, the CBCF announced plans to raise $1 million in aid. Between late September and the end of 2005, the CBCF’s “Katrina Relief Fund” reportedly collected $450,000 from six corporations and corporate philanthropies and $5,250 from individual donors.

Questions remain unanswered about when and if the aid money was distributed and why COFFEE, a charity close to CBCF Chairman Representative William J. Jefferson (D-LA), was selected to receive the lion’s share of the funds.

Benjamin Bell, president of COFFEE, told in a January 11 e-mail that “a report of the total [CBCF grant] effort is being prepared as well as a distribution of the final dollars.”

The CBCF has made no such commitment. Its public statements about the aid have been contradictory.

CBCF spokesperson Patty Rice told on December 21 that none of the aid money had been distributed by the CBCF at that time. Rice also said a CBCF committee was being organized to select grantees and issue grants in January or February of 2006.

However, accounts from the CBCF website and from the CBCF CEO differed:

* The CBCF web site claims that $290,000 of the Katrina Relief Fund was “issued” to the group COFFEE on December 9, 2005.* In a statement quoted on January 18, CBCF President and CEO Don Tharpe said the $290,000 was still in the CBCF’s possession as late as December 12, contradicting the website, but Tharpe confirmed the sum had subsequently been disbursed to COFFEE.

COFFEE has several links to Rep. Jefferson:

1) COFFEE was founded in 2002 to implement a CBCF housing-aid program created by Representative Jefferson.2) COFFEE’s chairman, Reverend Zebadee Bridges, in 1999 reportedly told his parishioners at the Asia Baptist Church in New Orleans to vote for and donate to Rep. Jefferson’s gubernatorial campaign, a possible abuse of the church’s non-profit tax status.

3) According to reporting, COFFEE apparently allowed Rep. Jefferson to deliver some of the aid checks to local recipients, although Jefferson is neither a board member nor employee of COFFEE.

Project 21 members seek answers to several questions:

* Why did the CBCF select COFFEE to receive the overwhelming majority of the Katrina aid funds collected by the CBCF?* Since the selection of COFFEE could benefit Rep. Jefferson politically, and the CBCF, a non-profit foundation, is barred by law from engaging in political activity, did Rep. Jefferson, while acting in his capacity as CBCF chairman, recuse himself from the decision to select COFFEE?

* Was the selection of COFFEE as the main aid recipient made by the entire CBCF board via a formal recorded vote? If not, which body or individual(s) made the decision?

* Are persons affiliated with COFFEE or the CBCF or their immediate families eligible for aid? If not, what prohibitions are in place? If so, have any such individuals received funds, why and what was the value of the aid received?

* Will the CBCF and COFFEE subject the aid disbursement program to independent audits of the type many charities conduct on routine annual basis? If so, will the audit reports be made public?

* Were charities other than COFFEE considered for the distribution of funds in the New Orleans area?

* What criteria is being used to determine how the rest of the CBCF aid money will be distributed? Is there a timetable for the distribution of the remaining funds?

Project 21 members had the following comments:”Given the devastation that befell New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and the Congressional Black Caucus’s criticism of federal relief efforts, the ambiguity surrounding the CBCF’s own aid efforts leave me confused, saddened and angry,” said Project 21 member Kevin Martin. “At best, the unanswered questions about their charitable foundation’s fundraising make these black legislators look hypocritical and foolish. At worst, the victims of Hurricane Katrina may have been used as cannon fodder for political gain and monetary benefit. The light of full disclosure is necessary to remove the shadow of doubt now enveloping the CBC.”

Project 21 member Mark Jordan asked: “Why weren’t the funds disbursed when they came in? In what type of accounts were the funds deposited pending disbursal? Did the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation benefit from interest on the charitable donations before they were disbursed?”

“The revelations about the Congressional Black Caucus, its foundation and their hurricane relief efforts give the appearance of a group that has capitalized on misery and now expects to be immune from scrutiny,” said Project 21 member Mychal Massie. “Was CBC criticism of President Bush in September intended to stir racial tension and justify a grab for money? Will this money be used to aid the truly needy or simply to curry favor for Representative Jefferson with his constituents? These questions deserve an answer. The CBCF should issue a full and detailed public report…”

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