CREW—Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington—is one of the most active and fairest of political watchdog groups. It has a definite liberal bias, for approximately twice as many Republicans as Democrats manage to attract CREW critiques, but that’s all right: plenty of elected officials from both parties have had their shady dealings exposed by the group, which is notable for its lack of sympathy for Washington’s traditional myths and excuses to allow guilt-free corruption.
An ethics watchdog, however, can never engage in the same conduct it criticizes in others. The reason for this is as much practical as ethical. A group that made a strong case that certain behavior shouldn’t be tolerated by the public in its elected champions doesn’t diminish the validity of its arguments by violating its own principles, but it does symbolically consent to accepting the same standard of review for its own actions that it demanded for its targets. This is what Will Shakespeare called being hoisted by your own petard—blowing yourself up with a bomb of your own construction.
As Shakespeare also noted, the previous quarry of the one who is thus hoisted just love to see this happen. It doesn’t really make what they did any less wrong or the ethics watchdog any less right to have condemned it, but when the critic gets caught doing something similar, it can make the conduct seem less wrong. This also will often guarantee that future criticism by the watchdog will be greeted with more suspicion than respect.
Salon has a posted a well-researched account of how CREW hoisted itself recently, and the prospects for the organization maintaining its previous level of respect and credibility are not good. Melanie Sloan, long the leader and public face of CREW, announced that she is joining the new firm of lobbyist Lanny Davis, a long-time Democratic ally and famous for being Bill Clinton’s most ubiquitous apologist during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Okay, Sloan is cashing in; I’m sympathetic. It would be more admirable and consistent for the head of an organization that has skewered politicians for falling prey to the unethical temptations peddled by lobbyists to find work that did not involve peddling those temptations herself, but that only reflects badly on Sloan’s integrity, not CREW’s.
It is worse than that, however. Over the summer, CREW aligned itself with the for-profit schools industry. “Today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent a letter to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (“HELP”), asking the committee to consider the financial motives of critics of the for-profit education industry,” a July CREW press release began. Later, Sloan again attacked the motives of for-profit school critics in a CREW blog post that linked to an op-ed piece Davis had written defending the for-profit industry. That industry then became a client of Davis’s lobbying firm.
Got that? Sloan and CREW pushed the interests of Davis’s clients, then Sloan went to work for Davis, where she will, in part, be enriched by the very people whom she assisted in the name of ethics—by attacking the financial motives of for-profit school opponents! This is precisely the kind of D.C. two-step that CREW mercilessly exposes when elected officials do it, and now here is the very same CREW leader who once condemned such corrupt practices, doing it herself.
The explanation? It’s a coincidence! The exact same excuse all of CREW’s targets give! “It’s true, I voted for the bill favored by the insurance industry after receiving a large campaign donation from an insurance group, but the two have nothing in common. There was no quid pro quo. It was a coincidence, that’s all!” And CREW’s standard reaction to that kind of explanation—from Charlie Rangel, from Maxine Waters, from Don Young, from dozens of others:
“Don’t insult our intelligence. You are untrustworthy. You’re a disgrace.”
As the Salon story concludes, “While Sloan and Davis say it’s nothing more than a coincidence, it’s difficult to look at CREW’s past work in this area in the same light.” Indeed, it will be difficult to look at CREW as the effective ethics watchdog it once was.
And Melanie Sloan had to know this would happen. She has been dealing with the harm done to public trust by appearances of impropriety for years as the head of CREW. It is not credible for her to claim that the criticism aimed at her now for an apparent conflict of interest is a surprise. Sloan had to know that by taking the lobbying job with Davis, she was engaging in the appearance of impropriety, and that it would seriously undermine the credibility of her former organization.
Ethically, it hardly matters whether the convergence of events was a coincidence or not. Sloan accepting this job wounds the perceived integrity of the ethics watchdog group she worked to build, undermines its important work, past, present and future, and is a gift to the corrupt in politics. She had a duty not to harm her employer, and more importantly, her employer’s mission, by the manner of her leaving it. If she had to cash in, she should have found another way to do it.
Melanie Sloan spent her career illuminating the weak ethics of Washington, D.C. and calling for higher standards. Now, by appearing to play the same game she and her organization opposed, she adds more fuel to the conflagration of cynicism and distrust that is ravaging our nation. If CREW’s integrity is for sale, the motives behind its criticism of politicians are open to question.
I’m sure Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters are having a good chuckle over Sloan’s conduct and CREW’s embarrassment, but this incident is a serious blow to the effort to shame politicians into giving us a more ethical government.