When CREW was questioned about its uneven actions against Republicans, the group claimed this is the case because GOP politicians controlled both Congress and the White House, and thus were more likely to be the recipients of corrupting gifts. “Republicans are the ones in power,” Melanie Sloan told The Hill in March 2006. “You’re stupid to pay off a Democrat. They can’t do a whole lot for you.” After the Democrats won both houses of Congress in 2006, then-Deputy Director of CREW Naomi Seligman wrote, “Now that the Democrats are in power, they will have opportunities for corruption that were previously reserved to Republicans and it is likely we will see more Democratic corruption.”
Between March 2004 and September 2010, CREW filed 29 complaints with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), of which 76 percent targeted Republicans or conservative-leaning groups. Yet, according to a select list of cases compiled by the FEC, only 40 percent of the civil penalties of $50,000 or more levied by the agency since 1980 were against Republican politicians or Republican Party supporters.
Additionally, of the CREW complaints that targeted Democrats, some can be seen as nevertheless advancing the goals of the Democratic Party. One complaint, filed in June 2010, asked South Carolina’s attorney general to investigate whether Senate candidate Alvin Greene was induced to run for office. Greene’s competency and fitness had been questioned by South Carolina Democrats, especially after it was revealed that he had been charged with a felony for showing a pornographic picture to an 18-year-old woman. Another CREW complaint, filed in June 2004, targeted Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader and his group Citizen Works. Nader’s 2000 presidential candidacy was viewed by many Democrats as siphoning votes from Democrat Al Gore.
Every IRS complaint filed by CREW as of the release of this original analysis targeted either a Republican or a conservative group. Between 2003 and the end of October 2010, CREW filed 17 complaints asking for investigations of members of Congress and various groups. All of those complaints targeted Republicans or conservative organizations. Conversely, between 2005 and 2009, only 50 percent of the charitable organizations whose tax-exempt statuses were revoked by the IRS were Republican or conservative-leaning; the other 50 percent were liberal.
Between March 2004 to July 2010, CREW filed 28 complaints or requests for action with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, better known as the House Ethics Committee. Of those, 75 percent targeted Republicans while only 18 percent were against Democrats. The remainder targeted members of both parties. Yet only 33 percent of members of Congress disciplined by the Committee since 1967 were Republicans, while 67 percent were Democrats.
One CREW complaint, filed against Democratic Rep. Jane Harman on April 20, 2009, alleged that Harman had inappropriate dealings with the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Harman holds many hawkish positions on national security issues and AIPAC is often criticized by left-wing commentators. Other complaints against Democrats, most notably the one filed against former Democratic Rep. William Jefferson, were released long after federal investigators were on the case and newspapers had reported apparent corruption.
Between June 2003 and April 2010 CREW filed 23 complaints or requests for action with the Senate Ethics Committee. Of those, 83 percent targeted Republicans and a mere 4 percent targeted Democrats. The rest targeted members of both parties.
Between September 2004 and August 2010, CREW filed 51 lawsuits; 75 percent of them targeted Republicans or the Bush Administration. Only 18 percent targeted Democrats or the Obama Administration. The remainder targeted both Democrats and Republicans, or were non-partisan.
During the George W. Bush Administration, CREW sued the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, the Department of Defense, the Department of the Treasury, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of the Interior, and the Social Security Administration, among others.
Some of CREW’s lawsuits against the Obama Administration also involved the Bush Administration. One suit against the Obama Department of Justice, filed in May 2010, concerned allegedly missing e-mails from two officials in Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel. Another suit against the Obama Department of Homeland Security, filed in June 2009, sought records of White House visits by coal executives during the Bush Administration.
Between June 2003 and September 2010, CREW requested 67 investigations by the Department of Justice and other federal agencies and law enforcement officials. (This also includes requests for disciplinary action by state bars.) Of those, 66 percent were directed against Republicans. Only 10 percent targeted Democrats. The rest targeted both Republicans and Democrats, or were nonpartisan.
An argument could be made that since Democrats were the majority party for 31 of the past 43 years, it would make sense that they would be disproportionately responsible for ethics violations. But Democrats also managed to equal Republicans in ethics violations during the 12 most recent years when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. Between 1995 and 2007, 17 members of Congress were officially sanctioned or been the subject of public disciplinary letters; nine were Democrats.
And during those 12 years, three of the four members of Congress convicted of criminal behavior were Democrats.
CREW’s contention that it focuses much of its firepower against Republicans because they are more corrupt is not supported by the facts.
CREW began seriously targeting Democrats only after it received negative press for its political bias.
CREW began to draw unfavorable attention from critics and tax experts by early 2006. That year, Republican Party officials considered filing an IRS complaint alleging that CREW’s activities violated its tax-exempt status. Some noted tax experts concurred that CREW’s lopsided focus on Republicans would raise red flags at the IRS. “At least preliminarily, I think they have a good case,” said former IRS official Richard J. Wood in a March 2006 interview with The Hill. “It looks to me that they’re probably right.” Wood cited memo #GCM 39811 from the IRS General Counsel, which states that even if an organization doesn’t explicitly intervene in political campaigns for elective office, a long-term strategy of engaging in prohibited behavior can be used against it.
Rosemary Fei, who represents nonprofit groups as a lawyer with the firm Silk, Adler, & Colvin, told The Hill that the apparent one-sidedness of CREW complaints has already raised concerns. “If I were at the IRS, the imbalance of complaints would certainly cause me concern about whether the organization might have violated the political-intervention prohibition,” said Fei.
Melanie Sloan claimed Republicans were just trying to bully her group into silence. She argued that CREW was actually targeting Democrats too, since it occasionally criticized a Democrat and had co-signed a “Congressional Ethics Coalition” letter calling for the House Ethics Committee to investigate three Democrats and three Republicans.
In addition to the issue of partisanship, CREW has come under fire for a lack of transparency about its operations. On March 30, 2005, The Hill published a scathing editorial blasting CREW for refusing to publicly name the members of its Board of Directors. “Why would any person or organization professing to believe in clean democracy object to revealing the names of the people influencing its policy?” asked the editorial. “CREW’s secrecy is hypocritical.”
Although CREW did eventually confirm two of its board members, Mark Penn and Daniel Berger, The Hill concluded that it wasn’t enough. “If CREW wants clean politics in Washington,” the paper wrote, “it needs to learn that transparency starts at home.”
As CREW began to attract more negative press, it slowly began to target more Democrats.