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An examination of the way CREW has treated different members of Congress undermines the group’s claim to be nonpartisan. If CREW truly had no horse in the political race, it would target both Republicans and Democrats accused of comparable offenses equally. Instead, the group employs far tougher tactics against Republicans.
In April 2006, the Justice Department and the FBI launched an investigation of Rep. Alan Mollohan, Democrat of West Virginia, after he was accused of directing at least $178 million in taxpayer money to nonprofit groups that were regular contributors to his political campaigns. In addition, Mollohan’s personal wealth dramatically jumped from somewhere between $100,000 and $562,000 in assets in 2000 to as much as $24.9 million in 2004, due to lucrative business deals with individuals who benefited from those earmarks.
Mollohan was the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee. Melanie Sloan of CREW called on Mollohan to step aside from the committee, which he ultimately did.
Mollohan, however, still occupied a powerful position on the House Appropriations Committee. This became an especially sensitive matter after Democrats won control of Congress barely seven months later. Mollohan was next in line to become the Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and State. In that role, he would wield authority over the budgets of the Justice Department and the FBI — the very agencies investigating him for possible criminal misconduct.
Initially, CREW seemed to agree that it would be unacceptable for Mollohan to chair the Appropriations subcommittee. In a December 11, 2006 CNN interview with Lou Dobbs, Sloan stated, “It’s well-known that Mr. Mollohan is now under investigation by the Justice Department and the FBI. And it’s a very awkward position for the FBI or the Justice Department to go to Mr. Mollohan to talk about their appropriations at the same time he is in charge of their purse strings.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, allowed Mollohan to assume his scheduled chairmanship in January 2007. Pelosi and the Democratic leadership decided to let Mollohan recuse himself from voting on specific budget accounts for the FBI, the Office of the U.S. Attorney General, U.S. Attorneys, and the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. But Mollohan’s official letter describing that recusal to the Appropriations Committee was never made public.
This arrangement hardly addressed Mollohan’s conflict of interest. Even if he kept his promise to recuse himself— and he didn’t—there are innumerable ways a subcommittee chairman can influence a cabinet department’s funding without ever casting a vote.
Pelosi’s stated rationale was that the Justice Department was “looking into every member of Congress.” But at the time, only Mollohan and a handful of other members of Congress were under investigation by federal grand juries.
CREW never denounced Pelosi’s decision. In fact, it did quite the opposite. In a January 10, 2007 press release, titled “CREW Lauds Pelosi and Mollohan for Recusal Decision,” Melanie Sloan offered praise for both Democrats. “Speaker Pelosi and Rep. Mollohan deserve credit for recognizing that recusal is the appropriate course of action,” Sloan said. “The Democrats have handled Rep. Mollohan’s ethics problem in a manner markedly different from the way Republicans have handled such issues.”
When Mollohan eventually broke his recusal pledge, CREW didn’t voice a word of protest. On July 25, 2007, Mollohan voted against an amendment that would have increased the FBI’s budget by $6 million. Roll Call reported that Democrats defended Mollohan, saying that he did not participate in discussions about the agencies investigating him, though no one from Mollohan’s office or the Appropriations Committee would go on the record about it. Mollohan also was actively involved in debate over Justice Department budget matters.
CREW did not file a complaint.
In January 2010, the Justice Department ended its nearly four-year investigation of Mollohan without filing charges. Officials gave no reason for their decision, nor a description of what they found. The public has never been adequately informed of the extent to which Mollohan’s control over the Department’s budget influenced its decision to let him off the hook.
CREW called on the House Ethics Committee to launch a further investigation, but Sloan admitted she thought that a probe was unlikely to occur.
In January 2006, CREW filed a complaint with the Justice Department against Rep. Jerry Lewis, Republican of California and then-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. CREW asked the DOJ to investigate the relationship between Lewis and a lobbyist named Bill Lowery. The group cited news reports claiming that Lewis approved hundreds of millions of dollars in federal projects for Lowery’s clients. Lowery and his firm also donated nearly $500,000 to Lewis’ political action committee.
In May 2006, the Justice Department initiated an investigation of Lewis, as part of what it called an expanding federal probe resulting from the bribery conviction of Rep. Randy Cunningham, who also had dealings with Lewis.
There are considerable similarities between the investigations of the Republican Lewis and the Democrat Mollohan. Both steered millions of dollars in earmarks to businesses and individuals who made significant campaign contributions. But CREW’s responses were very different.
Three months after applauding Mollohan’s dubious decision to merely recuse himself, CREW called on Lewis (by then the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee) to resign. “Rep. Lewis, as the top Republican appropriator, is responsible for funding all federal agencies, including the Justice Department, which is conducting a probe into his potentially criminal activities,” said Melanie Sloan in a press statement. “It is well past time for Rep. Lewis to relinquish his seat on the Appropriations Committee pending the outcome of the ongoing investigation.”
CREW took a hard line against Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, when he came under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes. The FBI and IRS raided Stevens’ Alaska home in July 2007 to gather evidence that he may have received an illegal gift when the oil services company Veco spent thousands of dollars to renovate his residence. Veco received tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts and was a major political donor to Stevens.
Like Mollohan, Stevens chaired the Appropriations Subcommittee that controlled the budgets of the Justice Department and the FBI. But unlike Mollohan, CREW never called for Stevens to recuse himself from votes affecting the agencies. Instead, it demanded his resignation.
In a July 31, 2007 press release, CREW stated that “it is imperative that no member under federal investigation be involved in the oversight or appropriations of any agency involved in investigating that member. Senator Stevens should immediately step down from his position.”
In an interview that same day on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Melanie Sloan told interviewer Mike Barnicle, “It’s highly inappropriate for him to stay on the Appropriations subcommittee which oversees the Justice Department’s budget when the Justice Department is investigating Senator Stevens.” When Barnicle asked Sloan if maybe Stevens should be given his day in court before being asked to resign, Sloan said that wasn’t an option. “It’s one thing to have your day in court, and it’s another thing to be in charge of the budget of the agency that’s investigating you,” said Sloan. “I think that’s inappropriate. And I think most Americans would agree.”
Stevens was convicted but a federal judge overturned the conviction in 2009, citing prosecutorial misconduct.
In demanding Stevens’ resignation, CREW’s Sloan said in a press statement that senators “should follow the lead of their House colleagues and require anyone whose property has been searched in connection with a criminal probe to relinquish his plum committee post.”
Mollohan had done no such thing. In the MSNBC interview, Sloan inaccurately sought to equate Mollohan’s recusal to resigning. Sloan told Barnicle, “Over in the House, Alan Mollohan, who’s under federal investigation, stepped down from his perch — or he recused himself — from his position overseeing the Justice Department budget.” Sloan started to say that Mollohan had “stepped down” from his appropriations committee assignment, but then quickly corrected herself to qualify it as a recusal.
In January 2009, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced legislation that would have routed $25 billion in taxpayer funds to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).
On April 27 of that year, CREW asked the FDIC’s Inspector General to investigate a contract awarded to a real estate firm, CB Richard Ellis Group (CBRE), headed by Feinstein’s husband.
CBRE received a lucrative FDIC contract in November 2008 to sell foreclosed real estate from failed banks at rates of compensation higher than industry norms.
The contract raised questions of impropriety because it was unusually generous to a company that had little experience in dealing with foreclosed properties. In her letter to the FDIC Inspector General, Melanie Sloan wrote, “The circumstances surrounding the FDIC’s contract with CBRE, including the possible intervention of Senator Feinstein, the contract’s unusually favorable terms, and that fact that CBRE is a commercial real estate firm less experienced in selling foreclosed properties, suggest there may have been some impropriety in the award process.”
CREW’s complaint was significant and unusual in that it targeted a Democrat. But it also came late. The Washington Times was first to write about the questionable contract. And a week before CREW entered the fray, Americans for Limited Government took the initiative to call on the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Feinstein for “this apparent conflict of interest.”
There is no evidence that the Inspector General took any action on CREW’s complaint. Nor does it appear that CREW followed up.
In September 2004, CREW filed a Federal Election Commission (FEC) complaint alleging that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its president Tom Donohue violated campaign law by making $500,000 in corporate contributions to the “The November Fund,” a Section 527 nonprofit organization. In December 2008, CREW asked the Bush Administration’s Department of Justice to determine whether Donohue broke the law. The DOJ declined to investigate, so CREW followed up with a request to Barack Obama’s Justice Department in March 2009. The Justice Department never publically took any official action.
CREW didn’t hesitate to inject itself into the 2008 presidential campaign, despite a longstanding prohibition against tax-exempt nonprofit groups engaging in electoral politics.
On October 23, 2008, CREW filed an FEC complaint against Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and the Republican National Committee (RNC) for allegedly spending $150,000 on clothing for Palin and her family. CREW alleged that such purchases violated the law governing the personal use of campaign funds. The FEC dismissed the complaint in May 2009, ruling that expenditures in this case were legal because the RNC used money from the party itself, not from the McCain campaign.
CREW has filed no complaints against the Obama campaign to date, but it was very active against the Bush Administration. In fact, CREW filed more than 30 lawsuits against the Bush administration and made at least 20 other formal requests for government investigations of Bush administration officials.
Starting in 2007, CREW began a protracted legal campaign against the Bush Administration to retrieve e-mails that the White House hadn’t made public. CREW accused the administration of violating federal records laws and published a report titled “The Untold Story of the Bush White House Emails.” The Obama Administration subsequently released some of the documents, which CREW published on their website.
CREW also released a report titled “Those Who Dared: 30 Officials Who Stood Up for Our Country,” praising those who had allegedly blown the whistle on the Bush Administration. Melanie Sloan said of the report, “As the Bush administration draws to a close, CREW commends those who stood up against the full weight of the federal government to do the right thing, risking their livelihoods and, in some cases, even their lives.”
Perhaps CREW’s most notable action against the Bush Administration was Sloan’s legal defense of Valerie Plame. Plame and her husband, Joseph Wilson, alleged that the Bush Administration had illegally outed Plame as a covert CIA operative. The ensuing grand jury investigation led to the conviction of I. Lewis Libby, an assistant to then-Vice President Richard Cheney, on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements to federal investigators.
Sloan was challenged about the similarities of the charges against Libby and those against former Democratic President Bill Clinton by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews:
Matthews: “Do you believe that [perjury and the obstruction of justice] were properly used as the basis for impeaching Bill Clinton?”
Sloan: “I think that this is not about Bill Clinton. This is about Scooter Libby…”
Matthews: “No I’m asking you a direct question. You have to answer it.”
Sloan: “No Chris, what we’re actually talking about now is what Scooter Libby’s doing…”
Matthews: “No I’m asking about Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Did you support the impeachment of Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice.”
Sloan: “I didn’t take a position on the impeachment of Bill Clinton one way or the other.”
Sloan, Plame, and Wilson filed the lawsuit Wilson v. Cheney against several high-ranking members of the Bush Administration. Both the U.S. Court for the District of the District of Columbia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit have dismissed the suit. Both the Bush and Obama Departments of Justice have argued that the lawsuit is baseless.
During his failed bid to become a Pennsylvania senator, former Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat, charged that the Obama Administration had intervened in his successful primary challenge of Sen. Arlen Specter. Sestak alleged that the Obama Administration had offered him a high-level job in exchange for his dropping out of the race. (The Obama Administration later confirmed Sestak’s account, but claimed the job had been on an unpaid advisory board.)
Several Republicans, led by Rep. Darrell Issa of California, warned that the Administration’s actions could constitute bribery under the U.S. Code.
Melanie Sloan, who has spent much of her career attacking politicians for ethics problems, strongly defended the Obama White House. In an interview on MSNBC, Sloan said, “Really? He was offered a position on an unpaid advisory board? That’s really not much of an offer.” Instead, Sloan criticized Issa for demanding an investigation: “Darrell Issa is really trying to make politics out of this all by screaming about it and calling it illegal, he thinks that suddenly it will become illegal.”
Before the Obama Administration claimed the position was unpaid, many speculated that Sestak was offered a position as Secretary of the Navy. This still wasn’t a problem for Sloan, who told the Cybercast News Service, “If you agree not to run for the Senate and we’ll make you Secretary of the Navy—that offers no monetary value. It’s just the unseemly side of politics.”
Sloan also attacked Republicans like Issa for demanding congressional investigations based on partisanship. “It’s not at all about whether there was actual criminal wrongdoing,” she told the Talking Points Memo website. “It’s about how to go after Sestak.”
In 2009, The Denver Post reported that former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Andrew Romanoff was offered three different positions by the Obama Administration. In exchange, Romanoff was to drop his primary challenge to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. Romanoff turned down the offer and later confirmed the Post’s account. He was reportedly offered two positions at USAID and director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.
Interviewed on CNN about the Romanoff flap, Sloan once again defended the Obama Administration. “Even if the White House was behind this, there’s really nothing wrong with that,” she said. “This is pure politics. This is the way things work in Washington, and there’s certainly nothing illegal about it.”
CREW consistently ignored President Barack Obama’s broken pledge to conduct the healthcare policy debate in a transparent manner. During the presidential campaign, Obama declared that healthcare negotiations”will be on C-SPAN … so the public will be part of the conversation and will see the choices that are being made.”
Obama broke his promise. The healthcare debate that his team oversaw involved secretive backroom deal-making that ultimately soured many Americans against the initiative. Initially, CREW seemed to be critical of this process. In filing one of CREW’s Freedom of Information lawsuit against the White House, Sloan said in a July 22, 2009 press release that “taxpayers have a right to know who is sitting at the table influencing decision-makers.”
But despite CREW’s repeated denunciations of the Bush Administration for its lack of transparency, CREW was a bit easier on the Obama White House for failing to follow through on its promise to hold open negotiations. “I guess I just never believed it when it was promised,” Sloan told Politico in an October 27, 2009 interview. “It seemed unrealistic.”
Other “open government” advocacy groups were not as forgiving. Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation expressed the sentiment of most watchdog organizations when he said in the same Politico article, “This is a broken promise. We didn’t get anywhere near the level of transparency that we were promised.” Craig Holman of Public Citizen also told Politico, “When it’s done behind closed doors, it usually gets torn apart, and the final product that’s offered to the public is something that’s been negotiated with lobbyists, special interests and the lawmakers with something at stake and is not always in the public’s interest.”
After a Pelosi spokesperson claimed that the healthcare process was “one of the most open and transparent processes when it comes to legislation,” an October Politico article reported, “Sloan said that Obama, Reid and Pelosi are being held to a higher standard of openness because they campaigned on a promise to deliver it.”
Throughout the healthcare debate, CREW issued statements trumpeting the Obama Administration’s stated commitment to transparency. On December 8, 2009, the group praised the White House’s “Open Government Directive,” which ostensibly ordered all agencies to institutionalize a “culture of open government” by making more information publicly available. In a press release, CREW’s Anne Weismann said, “This directive represents the kind of bold and far reaching initiative President Obama promised on his first full day of office.” Meanwhile the day before, the conservative group Judicial Watch sued the administration for refusing to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
On January 21, 2010, CREW issued a statement about President Obama “lauding his administration’s efforts to overcome government secrecy”. This was especially noteworthy because CREW rarely issues statements praising anyone. During the Bush administration, CREW released only two such glowing pronouncements: one praising then-Senator Obama, Democrat of Illinois, for co-sponsoring a bill to reform public financing of presidential campaigns, and another praising Rep. Alan Mollohan for his (later abandoned) promise to recuse himself from conflicted votes. Since Obama became President, CREW has made at least six public statements lauding him. It also issued one thanking Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) for his work on Freedom of Information Act law.
CREW seemed oblivious to the deals being cut between the Democratic congressional leadership and fence-sitting lawmakers to secure their votes for healthcare legislation. The organization had no criticism for Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, for securing the promise known as the “Cornhusker Kickback.” This $100 million provision would have exempted Nelson’s state from paying for its portion of Medicaid expansion. CREW also stayed mum about the “Louisiana Purchase,” a widely discussed promise to funnel $300 million to Louisiana’s Medicaid coffers, made to win the support of Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA).
Just a few months earlier, CREW appeared to take the Obama Administration to task for “preferring backroom politicking to transparency.” But once healthcare legislation became the subject of the same “backroom politicking,” CREW was nowhere to be found.
CREW appears to only have weighed in on the healthcare issue when it could help advance the Democrat-sponsored legislation. On August 27, 2009, CREW wrote to MSNBC in an attempt to torpedo an ad campaign that was critical of the proposed healthcare bill. The ad, sponsored by the U.S. Citizens Association, warned that the Democrats’ plan would eliminate private healthcare and force American citizens to wait months or years for treatment.
CREW argued that the ad violated Federal Communications Commission regulations and NBC’s own advertising policy, calling its statements “ludicrous” and claiming accusations “that healthcare will be rationed … have been debunked.”
On December 9, 2009, CREW filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, over his recording of healthcare-related automated phone calls in Arkansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and North Dakota. In those calls, McCain urged listeners to petition senators to support his amendment to block Medicare cuts.
CREW contended that the calls violated a rule prohibiting senators from using private funds to conduct political activities. The National Republican Senatorial Committee rejected the complaint as meritless, arguing that the calls were appropriately paid for. The Senate Ethics Committee took no action on CREW’s complaint.