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Editorial: CORE Philadelphia

Fattah: It's an 'audit'

Congressman Chaka Fattah has tried to downplay a federal investigation surrounding a multimillion-dollar scholarship program that he founded and abruptly shut down.

Fattah (D., Pa.,) described the probe of the program, known as CORE Philadelphia, as a routine "audit." But The Inquirer reported Sunday that FBI agents have issued subpoenas requesting at least one person who did work for the program to appear before a grand jury.

That sounds more like a federal investigation than a routine audit.

The probe appears to be in the early stages and nothing may come of it. Certainly, no one has been accused of any wrongdoing. Fattah says he hasn't even been contacted by the FBI.

Indeed, the program seemed well-intended. The goal was to give $3,000 scholarships to college-bound Philadelphia students.

Fattah founded CORE Philadelphia in 2004 and has touted it as one of his major accomplishments as a congressman. CORE, which stands for College Opportunity Resources for Education, has awarded $24 million in scholarships to about 3,000 students.

Some quick math shows 3,000 students getting $3,000 in scholarships each comes to $9 million. That leaves $15 million to be accounted for. Perhaps some students received more than one scholarship; that's a question for investigators to ask.

Most of CORE's funding came from city taxpayers and the Philadelphia School District. Fattah secured at least $3 million in federal earmarks for CORE and millions more for a related nonprofit he founded known as the Education Advancement Alliance.

The two nonprofits were staffed by aides close to Fattah. The federal funding for CORE came from a hodgepodge of sources, including the Justice Department, NASA and the Education Department.

Fattah had big intentions for CORE. Just six months ago he announced plans to raise a $200 million endowment to fund the program. Then he shuttered the program last month, citing a $1 million cut in funding from the city.

Given the high-profile nature of the program, the millions in taxpayers' money that has been spent, and its abrupt closure, a full and thorough accounting for all the spending seems more than appropriate.

Fattah believes investigators are focused on a $700,000 grant made in 2005 from the Justice Department to cover staffing and computers. He says the inquiry may have gained traction due to unfair complaints by a disgruntled employee.

There's a broader question: whether elected officials should be so closely tied to pet nonprofits, which have the potential to create conflicts or abuses. An extreme example is the federal corruption trial now taking place involving former state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo and the nonprofit he founded.

No one is comparing Fattah to Fumo. But even a well-intended nonprofit can create the appearance of a shadow political arm funded by taxpayers.