After 12 years with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington as the founding executive director, building the company from a solo enterprise to a 15-person team, Melanie Sloan started the new year by launching her own public affairs firm, Triumph Strategy.
“It’s exciting work, but I am ready for new challenges,” Sloan said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. Her work will focus on communications strategies and crisis management for private, nonprofit and public sector institutions; trade associations and unions; and candidates for public office. She is already well known for drawing attention to ethical lapses on Capitol Hill, which she felt had gone unreported and occurred without consequences.
“No one was saying anything,” Sloan said. “There was an agreement that no one would take action." At the time, House rules stated only a sitting member of Congress could bring an ethics complaint against another, and many lawmakers were reluctant to do so against their colleagues. Sloan decided that if members were reluctant to take action, she would do it.
She started by researching former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s "K Street Project," where staffers rotated to top lobbying shops and loyal GOP lobbyists were rewarded with access to influential officials. She found an ally in Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas, who lost his primary after an aggressive redistricting campaign backed by DeLay.
Working with Sloan, Bell filed an ethics complaint against DeLay and ethics changes in Congress followed — particularly the establishment of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which can investigate cases brought to its attention from outside Congress and forward them to the Ethics Committee for further review.
A former U.S. attorney and graduate of University of Chicago (both undergrad and law school), Sloan said she learned to write ethics complaints the same way she did legal briefs, and her understanding of Capitol Hill came from years working on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees under the leadership of then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., and Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.
With Sloan at the helm, CREW became a formidable player in Congress, targeting ethics violations on both sides of the aisle, including drafting complaints against ex-Reps. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, William Jefferson, D-La., and Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., all of whom served jail time.
But after 12 years of focusing on the ethics of Congress, Sloan is ready to solve a new set of problems. “I’m looking for complicated problems that need to be solved,” she said, focusing on the nexus of law, politics and media. Her partner at Triumph Strategies is Michael Huttner, the founder of the state-based grass-roots firm ProgressNow, based in Boulder, Colo.
“There’s lots of room for accountability campaigns in the private sector,” said Sloan, who acknowledges she is unlikely to lobby Congress directly and said she'll focus more energy on accountability campaigns designed to make government and the federal regulatory process more effective.
Going forward, she said the ethics she espoused at CREW will stay with her, “There are still some lines I won’t cross.”
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