Melanie Sloan, the director of top watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), picked up the phone. It was Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Bill Clinton, and he was mad.
“I called her to complain when she criticized Charlie Rangel,” said Davis, recalling how the two first met.
“He called me ‘McCarthyite.’ I was very offended,” said Sloan.
But the phone call turned into a lunch, and soon the two congressional oversight gurus found mutual respect for each other, despite their widely divergent views on political ethics.
Davis, the Clinton veteran, has blasted a slew of watchdog groups in Washington like CREW, calling them an “Ethics Apparat” always pointing at smoke to insinuate ethical fire.
Watchdog groups like CREW have “introduced a pervasive cynicism toward politics, a cynicism so great that the constitutionally mandated principle of the presumption of innocence had effectively been reversed,” Davis wrote in his 1999 White House memoir, “Truth to Tell”.
Sloan, the aggressive, press savvy head of one of the most prominent Washington watchdog groups, has been in charge of the “Ethics Apparat” for the past eight years.
For instance, CREW declared Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, one of the “most corrupt members of Congress” in its annual corruption report — CREW’s most famous work product.
The report on McConnell includes many financial dots, but little to connect them to any actual quid pro quo. For instance, a company called E-Cavern received a congressional earmark shortly after it hired a lobbying firm that employs numerous former McConnell staffers.
Suspicious? Yes. But corrupt? Davis has argued the media and watchdog groups often leap to draw conclusions, or connect the dots, when there isn’t evidence of actual impropriety.
Two competing views, each with many adherents. Davis’s view is more common among Washington insiders who have seen the system from the inside. Sloan’s more common among good government activists and everyday citizens who take a dim view of politicians.
Now the two will be working as a team, representing clients facing congressional subpoenas.
What binds Sloan and Davis together is a belief that politicians facing difficult ethical issues are best served by getting the facts out early. That way, the strategy goes, the “target” of the story can put the information in its proper context. If left to political enemies to leak, the damaging info can look even worse.
“Melanie is a great lawyer who understands media as important part of legal strategy in defending a client and getting all the facts out — the perfect combination for my practice,” Davis said.
With top GOP oversight official Rep. Darrell Issa attaining subpoena power in January when Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, Davis and Sloan are expecting that most people facing congressional subpoenas – their potential clients – will be Democrats.
But Sloan said the duo will take clients from either party.
Recently, Sloan attended a meeting of top liberal donors organized by a group called the Democracy Alliance.
Since CREW has long faced suspicion from Republicans and others that its oversight and “most corrupt” list shines a harsher light on the GOP, Sloan’s presence at the meeting attracted scrutiny.
“CREW seems willing to tweak Democrats with obvious ethical lapses, such as Rep. Charlie Rangel, but they spend far more time bashing Republicans and they are brutally unfair to Republican FEC commissioners, especially Don McGahn,” said Jeff Patch, communications director for the Center for Competitive Politics.
“Sloan’s attendance at a secret meeting to hobnob with liberal donors plotting to take advantage of a deregulated campaign finance system is quite ironic,” Patch said.
Sloan said the meeting was “very issue oriented” instead of on how liberals can help elect more Democrats in 2012.
“CREW has been careful not to participate in any meetings around town” that are about partisan strategizing, Sloan said, also noting that at the Democracy Alliance meeting, she told participants she would be leaving CREW.
“We’ve tried to play it straight down the middle over the years,” Sloan said, noting that conservative Sen. James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, recently called Sloan a “great American” on the Senate floor.
(In my own experience as a reporter, I have found CREW as willing to work with me on stories about Democrats, including President Obama, as they have been willing to work on stories about Republicans.)
Sloan’s announcement that she would be leaving CREW to work with Davis also attracted another criticism, that she, a leading voice against money’s corrupting influence on politics, was “cashing out” to K St.
“If I were to write a kids’ book about DC… it would be called ‘Everybody Cashes Out,’” tweeted Chris Hayes of The Nation, a liberal magazine, in reaction to Sloan’s announcement. Salon’s Gleen Greenwald, a member of CREW’s board, tweeted that “Leaving CREW to work for Lanny Davis would be like leaving the ACLU to work for Dick Cheney.”
“I have spent 20 years in government or non-profits,” said Sloan. “I think my dedication to public service is well demonstrated. I would put my record against anybody’s.”
Sloan spent the last eight years at CREW, creating a watchdog powerhouse. “I don’t owe it my whole life,” she said. “I’m allowed to leave….I like having new intellectual challenges.”
Also, she’s not going to be a lobbyist. “Everyone on Capitol Hill hates me,” she said, dismissing the idea. Instead, she’ll be a lawyer with the public relations know-how to guide clients through the challenging and unique minefield of congressional oversight.
Finally, one specific charge has been alleged, by the American Prospect, that Sloan’s departure may be connected to CREW’s oversight work on a byzantine issue related to student loans.
Davis represents one side in the student loan fight, and CREW filed information requests that might have benefited that same side.
Sloan and Davis both said that CREW’s work on the issue began well before Davis approached Sloan about possible employment. Specifically, CREW began working on that issue in June, and Davis first broached the subject of Sloan working for his firm in September, with substantive discussions taking place first in October.