Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is a David Brock-aligned 501(c)(3) advocacy group that markets itself as a “nonpartisan” watchdog directing litigation against government corruption in an effort to advance the public interest. The group is part of Brock’s network of organizations including Democratic-aligned opposition research Super PAC American Bridge and media criticism organization Media Matters for America that form Brock’s campaign to oppose Republican officeholders.
The organization has been recognized as having “played instrumental roles in building a stronger, more integrated progressive infrastructure” by the Democracy Alliance. CREW has received funding from progressive foundations, including financier George Soros’s Open Society Institute and singer Barbra Streisand’s Streisand Foundation.
CREW has been criticized for the appearance of pay-for-play advocacy on behalf of for-profit universities.
History and Founding
In 2001, prominent Democratic Party operatives founded CREW as a rejoinder to right-leaning legal advocacy groups such as Judicial Watch, the Rutherford Institute and the National Legal and Policy Center. The organization’s founding directors were: Louis Mayberg, a Democratic party donor, and co-founder of the Maryland-based ProFund Advisors LLC; Daniel Berger, another Democratic party donor who in 2004 made a $100,000 contribution to America Coming Together; and Mark Penn, a fellow at the New Politics Institute, and a Democratic strategist who worked on President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign and on Hillary Clinton’s 2000 U.S. Senate campaign. Norm Eisen, another Democratic Party operative, played a role in the group’s 2001 founding, although, he was not listed as a director.
When they initially conceived of CREW, both Eisen and Mayberg said that the organization was intended to even the playing field against conservative legal groups that had weakened the political position of President Bill Clinton during the 1990s. Melanie Sloan, another longtime Democratic operative, was listed as the executive director on the 2013 990 form with an annual salary of $260,699. She is no longer with the organization.
Prior to joining CREW, Sloan served as the nominations counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware), in 1993. She was also counsel for the crime subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee under then-U.S. Representative Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in 1994 and served as minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee under Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) from 1995 to 1998.
Leadership and Financial Support
As of the end of 2015, CREW reported assets of about $820,000 and total annual revenue of about $2.3 million.
In August 2014, liberal political operative David Brock, founder of the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, was elected as CREW’s board chairman. Sloan then announced that she would resign as a soon as a new executive director was named. Noah Bookbinder, who previously served as a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor and a chief counsel for the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee, was tapped to become the new executive director in March 2015.
In December 2016, Brock announced that he would be stepping away from CREW’s board after serving for two years. Eisen, the Democratic attorney who helped co-found CREW in 2001, returned to the organization as the new board chairman after serving as a legal counsel in the Obama White House and as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Richard Painter, formerly an ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, is now the vice chairman.
Since its inception, CREW has received financial support from several left-leaning foundations and organizations including the Arca Foundation, the David Geffen Foundation, Democracy Alliance, the Mayberg Family Charitable Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, the Sheller Family Foundation, the Streisand Foundation, the Tides Foundation, the Wallace Global Fund, and the Woodbury Fund.
CREW’s ties to late progressive funder John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix, led to criticism in the early 2010s. CREW had engaged in aggressive attacks on critics of for-profit universities during debates on Obama administration student-aid rules that would hurt for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix, leading some to speculate that they might be receiving funding from Sperling to engage in the hostile campaign. A subsequent analysis of tax returns found that Sperling’s Aurora Foundation had routed money into pass-through nonprofits associated with a Sacramento Democratic political consultancy that subsequently funded CREW.
CREW does not reveal its donors, so the money trail cannot be decisively confirmed. CREW faced additional criticism when then-executive director Melanie Sloan announced her intention to join the public affairs firm of controversial lawyer and consigliere to the Clinton family Lanny Davis. Davis conducted advocacy on behalf of for-profit universities during the period CREW attacked the industry’s critics while allegedly receiving funds from Sperling.
CREW Primarily Targets Republicans
CREW’s efforts at “accountability” and “ethics” have been criticized as a partisan vendetta against conservatives and Republicans. An attorney who represents nonprofit groups said in an interview with the Hill that obvious one-sided slant of CREW’s IRS complaints could potentially jeopardize the group’s standing.
In 2004, CREW circulated a letter to House members in an effort to identify someone willing to pursue ethics allegations against then Majority Leader Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas). CREW soon joined forces with former U.S. Representative Chris Bell (D-Texas), who had lost an election in the Democratic primary. Sloan worked in concert with Bell to fill an ethics complaint against Delay with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. CREW’s role in this effort was in violation with House rules that said non-members could not file ethics complaints. The committee dismissed Bell’s accusations against Delay.
CREW’s and progressives’ vendetta against Delay ultimately ended in criminal charges filed by the highly partisan Travis County District Attorney’s Office. After several years of trials, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Delay’s lower-court conviction, and one legal commentator called the charges “politically motivated.”
An analysis by the Center for Organizational Research and Education suggests CREW claimed impartiality was contrary to the facts through at least the first 18 months of the Obama administration. CREW filed 29 complaints with the Federal Election Commission in the period between March 2004 and September 2010. Breaking down these complaints, 76 percent were trained on Republicans and right-leaning groups, but a list of cases from the FEC shows only 40 percent of the civil penalties of $50,000 the agency levied since 1980 were actually against Republicans or Republican Party supporters.
Additionally, all of CREW’s complaints to the IRS concerning 501(c) statuses as of 2010 targeted conservative groups. The IRS itself was much more even handed: Between 2005 and 2009 only half of the charitable organizations that had their tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS were connected with the right.
Increased Partisanship under Brock
While CREW’s alleged impartiality was always overstated, it took a hit when Brock assumed a leadership in CREW. CREW’s “Most Corrupt” and “Worst Governors” lists, which occasionally mentioned the misdeeds of Democrats, were discontinued during his watch.
Clinton Family Ties
Brock’s close ties with the Clintons and his own personal political agenda ultimately worked to undermine CREW’s ability to objectively investigate certain organizations. Bloomberg reported that “Some former staffers say that Brock, who has moved into the vice chairman role, has pulled the watchdog into a partisan agenda and, in doing so, weakened its impact.”
Bloomberg News reported that this affected CREW’s interactions with Brock’s sponsors and allies in the Clinton family: “[CREW] walked away from a spat over Hillary Clinton’s treatment of e-mails as secretary of state, even after an U.S. State Department Inspector General found that CREW’s public records request had been improperly denied.” CREW’s December 2012 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the State Department inquiring about the former secretary of state’s email records was discussed at length and the Inspector General determined that department staff members did not conduct a search for these records.
Anti-Trump Administration Efforts
In keeping with the agenda of its former board chairman David Brock, CREW has been an aggressive opponent of the Trump administration. The so-called “Brocktopus,” which includes CREW, declared an intention to spend upwards of $40 million to oppose the Trump administration in 2017. CREW was reported to be “a particular locus of activity.”
Just a few weeks into President Trump’s administration, CREW filed an “open records request of all communication between White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and/or FBI Director James Comey concerning improper communication about the pending criminal investigation of Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election and links between Russian officials and associates of Donald Trump.”
CREW has also called for investigations of Trump’s business and interests and potential conflicts of interest. The watchdog group claims Trump’s business interest may violate the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. CREW claims that Trump is operating in violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause because he continues to maintain ownership in business ventures such as hotels where foreign governments and businesses are customers.
CREW also filed complaints against Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. Conway’s apparent endorsement of Ivanka Trump’s products violated federal ethics regulations, according to a complaint CREW filed with the Office of Government Ethics and White House Counsel’s Office.
CREW staff members typically have close ties with the Democratic Party, Democratic politicians, or other progressive organizations. Noah Bookbinder, the group’s executive director, was a staff member in the Obama administration and also served on the Senate Judiciary Committee under Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont). Matt Corley, the group’s chief investigator, has a history with the Center for American Progress, and Jordan Libowitz, the communications director, worked as an organizer for the Alaska Democratic Party.
Melanie Sloan, CREW’s founding executive director, left CREW in 2014. She formed a public affairs firm, Triumph Strategy. She partnered in that endeavor with ProgressNow founder Michael Huttner. Critics noted that Sloan’s new firm, which disclosed almost nothing about its clients and finances, “looks like everything CREW claims to oppose.”