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Watchdog, Donors Share Common Foes

“CREW is a nonpartisan organization that targets unethical conduct,” Seligman wrote in an e-mail. “The fact is, you must have power to abuse it and until recently, the Democrats didn’t have much power. In essence, the Democrats didn’t have anything to sell. 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.”

CREW has issued some press releases critical of Democrats, but has not necessarily followed up with formal complaints. CREW has named Democratic Reps. John Murtha (Pa.), Alan Mollohan (W.Va.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) to its “most corrupt” list, but never has released a separate ethics complaint against any of them.

CREW did file a complaint earlier this month against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — who voted for the Iraq War and consistently ranks as one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate — based on a December news story in The Washington Post. The story alleged that Landrieu inserted an earmark into the 2002 District of Columbia appropriations bill to benefit a company that a few weeks earlier had held a fundraiser for her. Landrieu since has provided documents indicating that she proposed the earmark six months before the fundraiser and that then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) requested the same earmark in the intervening months.

CREW argues that these documents do not change the gist of the charge — that the Senator pursued the earmark in exchange for campaign donations. But both the donor and Landrieu told Roll Call that CREW never called to check the story as laid out in The Washington Post.

Asked whether it is appropriate to base a formal complaint on a single news story, Seligman replied: “Are you suggesting that articles appearing in newspapers, such as Roll Call, are inherently unreliable and not factually supported?”

Republican critics argue that CREW is more interested in issuing press releases than pursuing litigation. Since there is no public process for arbitrating ethics complaints or DOJ investigations, CREW can issue a press release and there is no way for the target of the complaint to be publicly exonerated. “Where do you go to get your reputation back?” asked Stefan Passantino, who served as counsel for then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who was targeted by CREW.

CREW has changed its mission statement several times since 2005, de-emphasizing the focus on litigation. The group also has dropped language from the 2005 mission statement declaring that CREW “aims to counterbalance the conservative legal watchdog groups that made such a strong impact over the past decade.”

In December 2005, the organization described itself on its Web site as a “legal watchdog group” that “differs from other good government groups in that it sues offending politicians directly.”

The current site says that CREW “advances its mission using a combination of research, litigation and media outreach.”

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