USC offered Karen Bass scholarship before she was admitted to social work school, records show
For weeks, Rep. Karen Bass has faced intensifying questions over her free USC master’s degree in social work while in Congress.
The Times reported last month that Bass was awarded a scholarship to USC’s social work school without having directly applied and that the scholarship, valued at $95,000, had drawn her into a federal corruption case involving the school’s former dean, Marilyn Flynn.
Amid the controversy, Bass was pressed at a mayoral debate last week by one of the moderators, Seth Lemon, who asked, “To be clear, you formally applied — completed an application?”
“I applied for the program,” Bass asserted. The congresswoman then vowed to release her application to USC’s master’s degree in social work.
Bass’ campaign appeared to make good on that promise this week, providing KNX Newsradio what it purports to be her USC application, complete with a resume and essay.
But the documents released by Bass’ campaign are not actually an application for admission to USC’s social work master’s program, The Times has learned. The form is an application to attend classes on “limited status.”
USC’s “limited status” program by definition allows people to take courses without having been admitted to a degree program, and they are barred from receiving financial aid.
Prosecutors say L.A. mayoral candidate Karen Bass’ scholarship and her dealings with USC are ‘critical’ to a case about corruption at the university.
The Bass application — which is undated and unsigned — specifically says she had not applied to the master’s in social work program but planned to at a later date, indicating that when she began her coursework in 2012, she lacked formal admission.
The document shows that when Bass was offered a full scholarship in 2011 by USC’s social work dean, it was before she had been accepted into the social work master’s program, an unusual sequence of events that raises questions about preferential treatment for an elected official.
Bass’ spokesperson, Sarah Leonard Sheahan, and other campaign officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including when the congresswoman submitted the application. Her campaign also would not provide The Times a copy of the application published by KNX Newsradio despite several requests.
Her opponent in the mayor’s race, Rick Caruso, has repeatedly blasted Bass for accepting the scholarship and later offering legislation that gave USC and other private universities wider eligibility for federal funding, saying, “She received a free scholarship simply because she was a powerful member of Congress.”
In a statement this week, Caruso again called on Bass to release her emails and communications with Flynn, the former USC dean who pleaded guilty last month to a federal bribery charge involving one of Bass’ political allies, Mark Ridley-Thomas.
“Voters deserve this information now, not in a few weeks when the election is over,” Caruso said in the statement.
Karen Bass and Rick Caruso are attacking each other’s character and ethics, particularly when it comes to their alma mater.
In an interview last year, Bass said she initially applied to USC’s master’s in public administration, a degree offered by the university’s Price School of Public Policy, which is separate from the social work school.
Bass said she thought her status as a former USC employee made her eligible for free tuition, but when she found out she had to pay for the program, she did not continue with the MPA degree.
During that application process, she had contacted social work professors for letters of recommendation, and news of Bass’ interest in a graduate degree reached Flynn.
Congressional records confirm that Flynn “approached [Bass] about participating in USC’s dual MPA/MSW program.” The program was to be completed online, and Flynn offered Bass a full-tuition scholarship out of her discretionary funds.
The scholarship was unusually generous: It was not advertised online to other students, it had no application process, it was not awarded every year, and as congressional officials later noted, “the award is entirely discretionary on the part of Dean Flynn.”
House ethics officials determined that “the Dean’s Scholarship clearly falls within the definition of a gift,” and that Bass’ status as a congressional lawmaker “was a factor in granting your scholarship from USC.”
Nevertheless, Reps. Jo Bonner (R-Alabama) and Linda Sanchez (D-Whittier) wrote a letter approving a waiver of the “gift rule,” concluding it was an “unusual case” that would assist Bass in her official duties.
Bass began her studies in January 2012, taking one course per semester for the next year. She graduated in 2015 with a master’s degree in social work, not the dual degree program.
The full value of her scholarship was not disclosed on her congressional filings until 2019, when she added tens of thousands of dollars of previously undeclared funds related to the award to past years’ filings. Bass attributed the erroneous filings to a former staffer.
In an interview last year, Bass told The Times that the scholarship and studies followed a career devoted to child welfare, and that as a newly elected member of Congress, she wanted to focus on policy.
“I wanted an opportunity to drill down and to learn more about the structure of the child welfare system,” Bass said.
A reporter noted that Bass was in a very different financial position than most social work students, with a congressional salary and a rental property in Sacramento at the time, and asked whether she had gotten tuition money that should have gone to another student.
Bass replied by repeating the question. “Do I feel like I took it from someone else? No,” she said.
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