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Watchdog, Donors Share Common Foes

The ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has made its mark by issuing dozens of complaints since 2003 alleging that Members of Congress have taken official actions that benefit their families, friends or financial benefactors.

But a review of entities against which CREW has filed complaints and information about its donors suggests that the organization may be guilty of the same practice — attacking groups and individuals who are the foes of CREW’s donors.

The organization refuses to reveal information about its donors, and Deputy Director Naomi Seligman told Roll Call that “donors play no role in CREW’s decisions as to the groups or politicians we target.”

Several news stories — in this newspaper as well as in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and others — have pointed out that much of CREW’s funding comes from liberal groups and big donors to Democratic candidates and causes. And all but a handful of its complaints against Members of Congress have targeted Republicans.

But in some cases, there appear to be deeper links between the agenda of the donor and CREW’s attacks.

In February 2006, CREW asked the Senate Finance Committee to investigate the Center for Union Facts, an anti-union group, and its sister organization, the Center for Consumer Freedom, which CREW claimed are “front organizations for for-profit industry entities.” The complaint noted that the Center for Union Facts Web site had “negative information about unions,” including the Service Employees International Union. Later that year, CREW launched a Freedom of Information Act request, followed by a lawsuit, to get the Department of Labor to hand over documents regarding the department’s contacts with the founder of the two centers.

On Sept. 1, 2006, CREW received $75,000 from the SEIU, according to documents that the union filed with the Department of Labor.

“CREW has long targeted Richard Berman, the executive director of the Center for Union Facts, the Center for Consumer Freedom and other alleged charities, for doing the bidding of business behind the veil of nonprofits,” Seligman said.

Similarly, since 2004, CREW has filed four complaints before the Federal Election Commission alleging improper campaign contributions by the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a Miami-based political action committee that advocates a hard line against Fidel Castro’s regime and opposes any reduction in the limits on trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba.

CREW also has filed FEC complaints against Bacardi USA, the beverage giant that was a prime advocate of a 1999 law that prohibited U.S. agencies from honoring Cuban-registered trademarks over disputed names — notably Bacardi’s “Havana Club” rum. In 2003, the group also asked the Florida Bar to investigate allegations that Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas — a Democrat who split with Vice President Al Gore over the government’s handling of the Elián González affair — accepted illegal contributions in his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat.

In February 2007, CREW also asked the GAO to investigate whether broadcasts of Radio Martí beamed from Florida to Cuba violate federal laws against dissemination of propaganda in the U.S.

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