Watchdog Offers Scandal Tips

Posted January 7, 2009 at 6:55pm

After years of ginning up news stories exposing the misdeeds of Members of Congress, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is now offering to help Members avoid such stories in the future.

CREW, the left-leaning ethics watchdog group that annually publishes the “most Corrupt Members of Congress” list, has invited Congressional staff to a closed-door ethics workshop in the Capitol on Friday “to help you and your boss avoid the greatest pitfalls,” according to an invite sent to all Congressional offices this week.

Executive Director Melanie Sloan told Roll Call, “We finally thought, ‘Why not try to take the other tack and try to help keep people out of trouble rather than getting them into trouble?’”

Sloan argues that the Congressional ethics committees do little to actually enforce ethics rules or uphold ethical standards. “I think the ethics committee tells people how to get around the ethics rules,” she said. “Our point is just because the ethics committee doesn’t investigate you doesn’t mean you are off the hook.”

The invite notes that “The ethics committees have mandatory training seminars, but it doesn’t take much to avoid the committee’s scrutiny. Staying out of the sights of ethics watchdogs and investigative journalists can be trickier.”

Sloan said the workshop will explain to staff the kind of behavior that might be legal but could still lead to embarrassing stories in the press, such as hiring family members through a campaign payroll or providing earmarks for companies that are large campaign contributors.

Sloan said that sending a staff member to the ethics workshop will not guarantee a Congressional office that CREW will not later highlight their ethical failings, and she added that the workshop will not create any kind of “attorney/client” relationship between CREW and any Congressional offices — though the event is off-the-record and closed to the press to allow for an open discussion.

CREW’s bread-and-butter is filing petitions with the Congressional ethics committees, the Justice Department or other law enforcement bodies to ask for investigations of ethical misdeeds reported in the press. But the invitation to the workshop asks staffers, “Hoping never to see a story about your boss’s ethics issues splashed across the front pages of the Washington Post?”

Sloan acknowledges that CREW often helps generate those front-page stories, but she says it is the poor behavior — not CREW — that is the source of the story.

“We take it and run with it and make sure everybody knows about it, in large part so that it doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We’re not actually looking for Members of Congress to be unethical. We would like everybody to be ethical. … I know it seems shocking from us, but this is our effort to be helpful.”

Republicans have been particularly suspicious of CREW, since the bulk of the group’s targets have been GOP Members of Congress. Roll Call reported last year that many of the people CREW has targeted are adversaries of the mostly liberal groups that fund CREW.

Craig Holman, an ethics expert and lobbyist with Public Citizen, said there is nothing inappropriate about a watchdog group advising Congress on how to stay out of trouble.

“There is no harm in education, and quite frankly I think it is quite appropriate that some of the nonprofit people who have more interest in ensuring compliance instead of avoidance would be doing this,” Holman said.

Holman pointed out that many D.C. law firms provide ethics briefings for a fee and are more likely to teach staffers and lobbyists how to skirt ethics rules.

But Holman also noted that any advice CREW or any other outside entity gives to a staff member is not binding. “They are bound by the ethics committee interpretations” of the rules, he said.

The CREW workshop is being held in a Capitol meeting room reserved by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but Sloan said Pelosi’s office had nothing to do with the event. She said CREW approached Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), and his office agreed to ask the Speaker for use of the room. Farr’s office said it was a courtesy for a former staffer.