August 13, 2014; Politico
NPQ has frequently cited and turned to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and its founding executive director, Melanie Sloan, for important insights into politicians’ creation and subsequent use and abuse of nonprofits for political ends. Although Republicans typically condemned CREW as a part of a Democratic Party attack structure, we found CREW refreshingly nonpartisan, willing to call out Democrats as well as Republicans on issues of corruption—witness its annual list of “the most corrupt members of Congress,” with its high profile inclusion of Democrats like New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and New York Congressman Gregory Meeks, among other notables. CREW even went so far as to call for the resignation of powerful Democrat Charles Rangel, though Rangel has stayed in office and recently narrowly beat back a vigorous primary challenger.
Republicans nonetheless thought that CREW hit them harder than it went after Democrats, though from our perspective given our focus on shenanigans related to nonprofits, the problem was that since the days of Tom DeLay, Republicans have been more likely to muck around in 501(c)(3) territory. While Republicans might have thought CREW was too partisan Democratic, Kenneth Vogel reports in Politico that Democrats found its criticisms of their allies too hard to take, suggesting that the always strongly partisan Nancy Pelosi was no great fan and that the Democracy Alliance, which typically recommends progressive, Democratic organizations to its donor members, dropped CREW from its “top tier” of organizations for support.
CREW was a watchdog, but Vogel says that might be changing. The CREW board of directors just elected former Republican, now Democratic political activist David Brock as chairman of the board. Sloan is resigning, though staying on temporarily until executive director until a new ED is hired.
Brock already runs Media Matters for America, American Bridge (a super PAC), and the American Independent Institute. Brock told Vogel that adding CREW to his array of organizations makes the collection of organizations “kind of a one-stop-shop now.” Brock is also creating another watchdog, the American Democracy Legal Fund, a 527 to be run by the head of American Bridge, Brad Woodhouse, to take a more explicitly partisan role against Republicans. A 501(c)(3) public charity, CREW will add a 501(c)(4) arm as well.
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Some of us remember Brock from his Republican days before his political conversion, when he went after Anita Hill with a vengeance. National activists who go from hard left to hard right, such as David Horowitz, the former editor of Ramparts, or from hard right to hard left, such as Brock and others, leave us a little queasy. People do change their politics as they mature, but these 180-degree ideological conversions lead one to suspicions about how much they believed in whatever their positions were before their epiphanies and how deep their beliefs might be since.
Brock made a commitment to continue CREW’s nonpartisan work. “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,” Brock said. “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.”
Brock’s second point, that vast amount of violations of the public trust reside among conservatives, may have a tone that doesn’t go down well for those who appreciated CREW’s nonpartisan track record of letting the chips—or the criticisms—fall where they may. For example, Brock’s move to the CREW chair was accompanied by an announcement of a plan to have CREW devote more time to state and local political shenanigans. If that comes to fruition, Brock and CREW ought to be prepared for a slew of Democrats, at least in terms of screwing around with nonprofits, coming to its attention. Just in New York State alone, the practice of “members’ items,” albeit strongly opposed by new mayor Bill de Blasio, has led to indictments and convictions for some legislators and plenty of skepticism for others. Will Brock, reminted as a partisan activist, be willing to bring the hammer down on situations like that in New York?
A class act as always, Sloan said all the right things a departing executive director is supposed to say, expressing confidence that “CREW will continue to thrive under this new governance.” while acknowledging that Brock might “take [CREW] in new and interesting directions that I haven’t thought of.”
We have a strong affinity for Sloan’s leadership at CREW. Among the highest profile successes she had were CREW’s intrepid and principled actions against former House Speaker Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, both of which were written about extensively and early by Nonprofit Quarterly concerning their inappropriate political uses of charities and foundations they controlled. We can only wait and see if Brock maintains the historic effectiveness of CREW, fending off criticisms from Republicans and Democrats, or if he weakens this crucial national watchdog by making it more explicitly partisan.—Rick Cohen