Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington
Noah Bookbinder, Executive Director
Jennifer Ahearn, Policy Counsel
Matt Corley, Research Director
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) U.S. government watchdog organization. The organization's stated mission is to "promote ethics and accountability in government and public life by targeting government officials who sacrifice the common good to special interests." CREW, which is officially nonpartisan but progressive, was purportedly founded in part to serve as a counter-weight to conservative watchdog groups such as Judicial Watch. When David Brock, a Democrat and the founder of Media Matters for America, became the chairman of CREW's board of directors in 2014, the organization adopted a more explicitly partisan stance.
One of its projects is "CREW's Most Corrupt", an annual report in which CREW lists the people it considers to be Washington's most corrupt politicians. CREW typically targets Republicans. Its tactics include litigation, FOIA requests, congressional ethics complaints, Internal Revenue Service complaints, Federal Election Commission complaints, and requests for investigation with government agencies.
History and mission
A 2008 Roll Call article noted that the CREW mission statement had changed several times since 2005 to de-emphasize its focus on litigation. It dropped language that once read that CREW "differs from other good government groups in that it sues offending politicians directly" and that it "aims to counterbalance the conservative legal watchdog groups that made such a strong impact over the past decade", and now instead states that CREW "advances its mission using a combination of research, litigation and media outreach."
- Family Affair report
In 2012, CREW released a reported entitled Family Affair, which examined how members of Congress had used their positions to benefit themselves and their families. The report included 248 members of the United States House of Representatives, 105 Democrats and 143 Republicans, "about equal to their parties' proportional makeup in the House." Common practices, which do not appear to violate laws or House ethics rules include; paying family for congressional office and campaign work, collecting reimbursements from official US House and campaign budgets, earmarking to projects connected with family members, and charging interest on personal loans given to their campaigns.
- CREW’s Most Corrupt list
Each year since 2005, CREW has published its "Most Corrupt Members of Congress” report. The 2012 election cycle saw 11 of the 32 lawmakers included in the last two reports either defeated or retiring. As of 2014, the list had included 88 individuals, including 63 Republicans and 25 Democrats.
- Criticism of Continuing Appropriations Resolution
CREW raised questions about some of the content of the Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2014 (H.J.Res 59; 113th Congress). One controversial provision of the bill was section 134, which stated that "notwithstanding any other provision of this joint resolution, there is appropriated for payment to Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg, widow of Frank R. Lautenberg, late a Senator from New Jersey, $174,000." CREW protested the inclusion of this in the bill, since the senator's assets in 2011 were over $57 million. The group questioned why this "death gratuity" was considered a "top funding priority", but had no impact on the gratuity's issuance.
Melanie Sloan served as CREW's founding executive director. In August 2014 Media Matters for America founder David Brock was elected chairman of CREW's board, and Sloan announced her intention to resign as executive director, pending Brock's hiring of a new executive director. Prior to founding CREW in 2003, Sloan served as one of more than 300 Assistant U.S. Attorneys in the District of Columbia from 1998 to 2003 after having worked for congressional Democrats John Conyers, Charles Schumer, and Joseph Biden. Mark Penn, pollster for Bill Gates, Tony Blair, both Bill and Hillary Clinton, also became a director and vice president at CREW.
Brock was elected as CREW's board president after laying out a broad plan to turn the organization into a more muscular and partisan organization. While CREW operates as a 501(c)3 nonprofit prohibited from engaging in partisan activity, Brock made clear he intends to create a more politically oriented arm registered under section 501(c)4, and also form a new overtly partisan watchdog group called The American Democracy Legal Fund registered under section 527, allowing it to engage in direct political activity. Along with Brock's election, consultant David Mercer and investor Wayne Jordan joined CREW's board of directors. When asked if CREW would still continue pursuing complaints against Democrats, Brock responded, "No party has a monopoly on corruption and at this early juncture, we are not making categorical statements about anything that we will and won't do. Having said that, our experience has been that the vast amount of violations of the public trust can be found on the conservative side of the aisle."
Allegations of partisanship and criticism
"We are progressive", said Naomi Seligman, the group's deputy director... "We do work within a larger progressive infrastructure." She suggested her group is the progressive counterweight to Judicial Watch, a group from the right that calls itself "a non-profit, public interest law firm dedicated to fighting government corruption ... We've gone after a fair number of Democrats, even in this study", Seligman said, [and Burns] "should be answering the charges, not slinging charges."
In 2006, Congressional Quarterly reported, "Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has taken aim almost exclusively at GOP members of Congress. Since its founding in 2003, it [helped] investigate 21 lawmakers, only one of them a Democrat" (Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, in a complaint that also targeted Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), then Senate Majority Leader).
In 2007, Ms. Magazine quoted longtime Democratic pollster Celinda Lake as saying, "Corruption was a top issue in the  midterm elections, and CREW was critical to the Democrats' success. The fact that they were bipartisan and had created this dirty-dozen list of corrupt politicians really helped people process that these politicians were acting well outside the norm." In 2006, Time referred to the group as "the liberal watchdog group", and reported that "[S]ince its founding in 2003, CREW has worked through legal and regulatory channels to press allegations of impropriety almost exclusively against Republicans."
In 2010, Ben Smith of Politico described CREW's founding in 2003 as "one of a wave of new groups backed by liberal donors" and called CREW "a vehicle for assaults on largely – but not entirely – Republican targets". An Associated Press story in 2010, however, stated that CREW "has a history of targeting members of Congress representing different races, philosophies and both major parties."
CREW called for the resignations of U.S. House Democrats Charlie Rangel and Anthony Weiner. In June 2011, CREW criticized the Justice Department's prosecution of Democratic politician John Edwards for allegedly receiving and hiding illegal campaign contributions. Then executive director Melanie Sloan said that the prosecutor's case was "remarkably weak ... no court has ever interpreted the definition of campaign contribution this broadly."
The Washington Post has variously described CREW as a "liberal watchdog group", "nonprofit watchdog group", "advocacy group", and "nonpartisan watchdog group". The New York Times, USA TODAY, and Roll Call have all referred to CREW as "liberal", with Roll Call also describing CREW as "controversial".
In April 2011, CREW was described as "left-leaning" by both the Chicago Tribune and Lexington Herald-Leader and The Daily Caller columnists called CREW "a Democrat-leaning group" without a "contributor base to play watchdog over the Obama administration."
Roll Call article
Roll Call reported in January 2008 that CREW files most of its complaints against members of Congress, and "all but a handful ... have targeted Republicans". The article stated that CREW had issued press releases against Democrats but usually had not filed complaints against them, with the exception of now former Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), a conservative Democrat. CREW defended itself to Roll Call:
"CREW is a nonpartisan organization that targets unethical conduct", [Deputy Director Naomi] Seligman wrote... "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."
After the article was published, CREW stated that it was "baseless" and "omitted key facts". CREW suggested the Roll Call reporter had been prompted by a conversation with Senator Landrieu, the target of a recent CREW lawsuit at the time.
Roll Call reported that CREW doesn't disclose its donor list, and quoted former Deputy Director Naomi Seligman as saying that "donors play no role in CREW’s decisions as to the groups or politicians we target." Donors to CREW have included such groups as Democracy Alliance, Service Employees International Union, the Arca Foundation, and the Gill Foundation.
In January 2012, Democracy Alliance dropped a number of prominent organizations, including CREW, from their list of recommended organizations to receive donations. Support was purportedly withdrawn because these groups are more apt to work outside the Democratic Party's infrastructure.
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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.
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