Melanie Sloan leaving the helm of one of Washington’s top watchdog groups to team up with former Clinton lawyer Lanny Davis has touched off a bitter feud between the new, unlikely duo and the liberal, er, progressive blogosphere.
In past days, Campus Progress, the American Prospect and Salon published articles insinuating something untoward about Sloan’s involvement in a complicated education issue that has proved divisive on the left.
The articles provided no evidence of impropriety but cast suspicion on Sloan’s and Davis’s integrity.
Now Davis is hitting back, blasting the lefty bloggers he says are “going after [Sloan] literally like a pack of dogs.”
“This is not journalism, this isn’t even blogging. This is McCarthyism. This is pure guilt by association. [This is] ‘I have a piece of paper here that lists communists and therefore they’re communists,’” Davis said in an interview.
At issue are government-backed student loans for pupils at “for-profit” colleges like the University of Phoenix. A faction on the left is pushing to end government subsidies for these schools, charging the schools trick many unprepared students into an ill-fated college experience that ends in their defaulting on student loans on the taxpayer’s dime.
Over the last five months, Davis and Sloan independently raised questions about the potential financial motives of one of the top critics of the for-profit colleges, the famous short-seller, Steven Eisman. Davis questioned whether Eisman would profit financially from tearing down the reputation of the for-profit schools. Eisman conceded he would.
Sloan’s watchdog group filed a Freedom of Information Request regarding Eisman’s involvement in Department of Education regulations that were under consideration at the agency. The request was filed months before she discussed possible employment with Davis.
But now that Sloan is teaming up with Davis, the liberal critics are suggesting something improper took place. The articles do not provide any evidence of wrongdoing, but suggest the timing of key events looks suspicious.
Davis says the bloggers are smearing him and Sloan based on innuendo.
“Guilt by association, innuendo, no facts, no facts whatsoever. You read Justin Elliot’s entire piece today. It is a classic McCarthyism hit. There’s no facts in there other than innuendo,” Davis said.
Elliot declined to comment.
In another case, Davis blasted the publication Campus Progress, part of the think tank the Center for American Progress, which is sometimes called the “shadow” White House given its close ties to the Obama administration, for publishing a scathing article about him without calling him for comment first.
The article, published in late October, questions Davis’s motives and the connection between an op-ed published by Davis in the Hill in June and his being hired to lobby for the for-profit schools three months later.
“Did Davis himself have a disclosure issue here?” the article asks. “Perhaps he had not yet entered into discussions with the for-profits to be their paid advocate. Perhaps he was simply auditioning for the lucrative assignment. Or perhaps in a world of critical policy issues on which he could comment, Davis acted solely out of conviction in penning this tribute to schools that have left many students deeply in debt and without marketable skills. In any case, Davis registered as a lobbyist for [the for-profit schools] on Sept. 17.”
In an interview, Kay Steiger, the author of the article, and David Halperin, the director of Campus Progress, said they did not contact Davis before publishing because the article “did not include new reporting or new factual revelations, but instead collected and linked to pieces previously published by reputable sources.”
Instead, thinking “it would make for a more interesting piece,” Steiger called Davis shortly after the article had been published.
“We called him before probably a dozen people read that piece,” said Halperin.
Steiger and Halperin admitted there was no actual evidence of wrongdoing.
“We just think they’re on the wrong side of this issue. We thought it was a question worth asking,” said Halperin.
Davis notes that in the op-ed, he was only calling for disclosure of the possible financial motive of Eisman to tear down the reputation of for-profit schools. “The wrong side of what issue,” Davis said, “the issue [Sloan] and I independently were working on is transparency. What side are they on, not transparency?”
The feud that has broken out between team Davis-Sloan and the lefty bloggers is still simmering, despite it occurring over a seemingly obscure policy issue. Sources close to the matter recount screaming matches over the phone and endless, hours-long debates over possible conflicts of interest.
Ed. note: David Halperin’s title has been corrected in this article.