When you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the first rule to getting out of it is to stop digging.

When Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson launched a media blitz to counter revelations by the Dallas Morning News’ Todd Gillman and Christy Hoppe that Johnson had directed $31,000 in scholarship money intended for children in her district to two of her own grandchildren, two great-nephews, and to two children of a top aide, she could not have known that her obliviousness would become as obvious as her lack of ethics.

At first, she claimed ignorance of the rules. Then she said the rules were ambiguous. But the rules are clear-cut: they require recipients to be from a member’s district and not to be related to the member. In response, she said she did not know the rules were in print. However, her grandsons and great-nephews, who live outside the district, signed printed applications—several times—certifying that they lived in her district and were not related to her. She said her grandchildren were not in her immediate family. Then she said there were no eligible students in her district. Predictably, local television stations soon found eligible students in her district. One had even appealed to Johnson for help in finding scholarships. In a written reply, Johnson told her to talk to her high school guidance counselor.

In a devastating interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN, she said she did not know if her grandchildren had even seen the forms. When Cooper reminded her they had signed the applications, she said she could not confirm that because she had not seen them. When he asked if she had even bothered to look at the forms, she said her office had lost them. Then we learned that she personally directed the checks to be paid to her relatives as individuals, not to their colleges.

With Cooper and in local radio interviews, her mantra became “I was negligent. I made a mistake. I repaid the money. It is time to move on.” 
She is right about that. It is time to move on. It is time for her to move on. The Department of Justice will assist her in that decision, I suspect, by launching an investigation into family and staff members who conspired on multiple occasions to defraud the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation using the U.S. mail. Johnson’s choice will be either to take a deal or visit her grandchildren in jail.

Justice prosecutors might also want to look into Johnson’s blind trust. A blind trust is supposed to be administered by a third party without the knowledge of the beneficiary in order to avoid conflicts of interest. Normally it invests in public markets. But Johnson’s blind trust is different. It owns a private stake in the Hudson News concession at Love Field.
Johnson serves on the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It oversees the FAA, which requires the participation of “disadvantaged business enterprises”—i.e., minority ownership—in airport concessions. Hudson News is a major airport concessionaire in the United States.
In other words, Johnson supervises an agency that requires companies to offer business opportunities to minorities. Johnson’s blind trust happens to be one of the lucky beneficiaries of the requirement.

Coincidence may be blind, but it is highly doubtful that Johnson’s trust is.

The hole that Congresswoman Johnson has dug for herself will require a bulldozer to fill up. Unfortunately, the voters are unlikely to supply it. In her tenure in the State Senate, she artfully drew a gerrymandered Congressional district (with the connivance of Republicans who wanted all those pesky minority voters safely stuffed away). She then became its first—and so far, only—representative. Barack Obama carried her district by 82 percent; John Kerry by 75. She beat them both, with a margin of 83 percent.

But what the voters are unlikely to do for themselves, a grand jury can do for them. If her interview with Anderson Cooper is any indication, her testimony will be a piece of theater the jurors are unlikely to forget—or forgive.

Write to wick@dmagazine.com.