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.
While CREW will not release its donor records, since 2003 the group has received $125,000 from the Arca Foundation, according to the foundation’s annual reports. Over the same period, Arca — a family foundation that has backed a host of liberal causes — has provided about $1 million to organizations to advocate opening ties to Cuba and reducing barriers to travel.
The Arca Foundation’s executive director, Donna Edwards, was listed as a director of CREW on the organization’s 2003, 2004 and 2005 tax forms. Edwards ran against Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) in 2006 and again is challenging him in the Democratic primary. CREW has never filed an allegation against Wynn, but two days before the 2006 primary, the organization posted to its Web site a Washington Post story headlined “Wynn Accused of Inflating His List of Endorsements.”
Arca Foundation board member Margery Tabankin told Roll Call that she believes the foundation was supporting CREW for general operations, and that there was no mention of Cuba in the foundation’s discussion of grants to CREW.
Arca also supports the Center for Independent Media, founded in 2006 to promote
“citizen-driven journalism” through blogs. The center established two Web sites as test-beds — Minnesota Monitor and Colorado Confidential.
Three weeks before the 2006 Congressional elections, CREW filed a complaint with the IRS alleging that a Minnesota pastor had violated his church’s tax-exempt status by endorsing conservative Republican Michele Bachmann for the state’s 6th Congressional district. The endorsement originally was reported by Minnesota Monitor, and CREW cited that report in its complaint to the IRS. In February 2007, CREW filed a second IRS complaint against the same pastor, alleging financial improprieties at the church. CREW said it had received evidence of the financial deals from Minnesota Monitor.
At no point did CREW disclose the fact that — according to foundation reports — it shares funders with Minnesota Monitor, including Arca, the Brett Family Foundation and the Colorado-based Gill Foundation.
The Gill Foundation is heavily invested in organizations advocating gay and lesbian rights. One of the prime antagonists of the gay rights movement is Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), who introduced the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Two weeks before the 2004 election, CREW filed a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging that Musgrave’s campaign was operating out of her district office in Loveland, Colo. Musgrave Chief of Staff Guy Short said the allegation was untrue. He said Musgrave’s office never was contacted by the Justice Department and to the best of his knowledge the allegation was never investigated by the DOJ.
In September 2005, CREW named Musgrave to its list of the “13 Most Corrupt” Members of Congress, and filed a complaint against her before the FEC in February 2007. The FEC dismissed that complaint.
In September 2006, CREW filed complaints with the IRS and the Postal Service against two “anti-gay marriage organizations” in Minnesota for allegedly supporting a state Senate candidate.
The Gill Foundation donated $125,000 to CREW in 2006, according to the foundation’s annual report.
Like most CREW filings, the complaint the organization filed with the DOJ against Musgrave was based on local news stories, and the document contains no indication that CREW made independent efforts to confirm the details.
Republicans complain that the overwhelming majority of CREW’s targets are GOP officeholders or allied organizations. CREW denies a partisan bias to its activities.
“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.”
CREW also has lost most of its legal expertise. Of the 13 staff members listed on the organization’s Web site in December 2006, at least eight have left, and Roll Call has identified three other staff members who have worked there and left in the past year or so. While the 2006 staff included a chief counsel position, two senior counsels and two counsels, only the chief counsel still works at CREW, and no other staff member besides Executive Director Melanie Sloan has a legal background, according to the CREW Web site.
Seligman refused to comment on the staff turnover. “CREW does not discuss internal personnel matters,” she said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.