Ethics Quiz: Can You Undo A Past Confict of Interest or Appearance of Impropriety?

In November, Ethics Alarms noted that Melanie Sloan, the head of the ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was involved in exactly the kind of Washington insider conflict of interest that the group typically slams politicians for engaging in:

“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…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.”

Now, for reasons yet undisclosed. Sloan will not be leaving CREW after all.

Does that make everything all right, obliterating the conflict of interest exposed by her decision to take the lobbying job for a firm representing the same interests that CREW had defended? Is the stain of that apparent conflict now erased?

The answer: It is not. The appearance of impropriety has already occurred: CREW used its credibility to help an industry and bolster the argument of its lobbyist, then CREW’s executive director agreed to come work for both. The public will never know for sure whether this was a quid pro quo deal all along, but the fact that the suspicion lingers permanently damages CREW’s reputation. Sloan’s change of heart doesn’t just fail to eliminate the damage, her continued presence exacerbates it. If she traded CREW’s influence for a job offer once, she may do it again.

What I wrote in November is as true as it was then:

“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…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.”

The damage has already been done.

2 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Can You Undo A Past Confict of Interest or Appearance of Impropriety?

  1. Sloan’s credibility is shot, but CREW still has a chance. Getting rid of Sloan, denouncing her actions, and exposing themselves as they exposed others is a must for them.

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