Congressman Sanford Bishop (D-GA), His Scandal and the Pigford Cover-Up
Earlier this week, BigGovernment revealed another chapter in the scandal ridden saga of Georgia Congressman Sanford Bishop. Representative Bishop has represented South Georgia's second district for nearly 20 years. He’s an under the radar member of the Congressional Black Caucus, seemingly without the temperament or ambition to achieve the high visibility of a John Conyers or Maxine Waters. His relative anonymity has allowed him to avoid much close scrutiny but because of his active role in helping to cover up the Pigford scandal, we are keeping a close eye on him and his race for reelection in 2012. For those of you not familiar with Congressman Bishop, here's a quick recap of some of his career low lights.
Despite the relative lack of progress and growth he's delivered to his district, Congressman Bishop is an expert in delivering earmarks. In fiscal year 2010, he was ranked 42nd out of 435 Congressmen. In 2008 he was ranked 28th. He generally delivers a combination of military and agricultural pork that has given him the behind-the-scenes support of some in the political class beyond his African-American voter base.
He's had a couple of scandals that have involved his wife Vivian Creighton-Bishop diverting money to friends and family. Vivian Bishop is the Municipal Court clerk in Columbus, Georgia. In March 2009, Frank Castiglione reported;
During an internal audit of the Junior Marshal Program at the Marshal's Office in Columbus, it was discovered that two part-time employees had been paid over $7,000 each over a period of some months.
The employees lived in Lithonia, Georgia, well over 100 miles away from the Columbus office. In light of rumors regarding the part-timers, Marshal Greg Countryman called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to launch an inquiry.
The GBI found that the part-time employees, Aayesha Reese and Stephen Reese, are the daughter and son-in-law of Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop. With more digging, it was discovered that the paychecks, sent via direct deposit, had actually been diverted to Creighton-Bishop's bank account.
This would seem to be the stuff that would end a political career, but Mr. and Mrs. Bishop appear to possess considerable skill at keeping much of the local press under their sway.
The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer published a few stories online, including PDF attachments of the evidence turned over to the GBI, including Creighton-Bishop's voided check for direct deposit and audits of pay received by both Reeses. The stories stopped.
With the exception of one mention in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, no other news agency has picked up on this story. Since then, (the reporter for the Columbus Ledger-Enquiter) has written two articles, one praising Rep. Bishop for his help in providing federal funding to the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, and one praising the Junior Marshal Program for its work with children.
In 2010, yet another scandal broke that involve diverting money to Vivian Bishop's daughter as well as other relatives and people who work in her office. This time, it broke nationally and Politico reported;
Bishop awarded scholarships to his stepdaughter, Aayesha Reese Owens, in 2003. Emmaundia Whitaker, the niece of Vivian Creighton Bishop, the congressman’s wife, was given similar scholarships in 2003 and 2005.
Neither Bishop’s office nor the CBCF would estimate the amount of the scholarships, but they are typically in the $1,000 to $2,000 range, according to previous media reports on the CBC program.
The Associated Press reported Friday that Sherletha Thomas, who is now married to Bishop's district director, Kenneth Cutts, received a scholarship in 2003 as well. The couple was not married at that time, Bishop’s office said.
A Bishop spokesman told POLITICO that there were no nepotism rules in the mid-2000s to bar the CBC scholarships from going to family members. A CBCF spokeswoman said such restrictions were not put in place until 2008.
Even CNN’s Anderson Cooper couldn't ignore this one and devoted several minutes to a segment on Bishop that's worth watching. With he and his wife’s hand caught in the cookie jar, Bishop simply repaid the money and ducked inquiries until the national press moved on to other things.
Congressman Bishop first came to my attention when I interviewed Georgia farmers Eddie Slaughter and Willie Head for my documentary on the Pigford scandal. Both of them went on record with a stunning story — they were part of a group that had gone to Congressman Bishop to complain about fraud in Pigford and he told them to be quiet about it. Eddie Slaughter told me;
We went to him [Sanford Bishop] several times about this fraud. [We asked] 'why don't you have them tell you how many of these people that are getting this money have an actual farm ID number and are actual farmers?' [Bishop responded] 'no, no, no -- man, they'll shut this thing down.'
Watch for yourself...
When you listen to my interview with Eddie Slaughter, you can probably hear the shock in my voice about the story. It was significant because the USDA has consistently said that there is no fraud in Pigford and yet here was a Congressional veteran who not only knew about the fraud, but explicitly told a group of people to be quiet about it.
At that point, I naïvely thought that we would have a national story they could break both the Pigford scandal and Sanford Bishop's involvement wide open. Little did I know about the Talented Mr. Bishop and his impressive ability to slide out of situations.
Within a couple of days, Congressman Bishop had responded to three different newspapers. His story was different each time. First, Rep. Bishop told the Albany Herald that he was aware of the fraud but it wasn't his job to police it. Then Bishop told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was “shocked and perplexed” and suggested that the farmers had been drinking. The AJC said Bishop “may have known” about the fraud, which contradicts other statements that he knew about the fraud but that it wasn’t his responsibility. Finally, Rep. Bishop told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer he remembered the meeting, repeated that he wasn't responsible for monitoring fraud, suggested that there were anti-fraud provisions in the second Pigford bill and again insulted the farmers calling them disgruntled and irresponsible.
Now it's a year later and the $1.25 billion Pigford 2 settlement has been pushed through by the Obama administration and approved by a judge. Additionally, Obama's USDA and Department of Justice under Eric holder have pushed through additional settlements for women, Hispanic and Latino farmers that will total billions more.
But don't worry, Congressman Bishop; we aren't done reporting on this story or exposing you.