Tom DeLay complained miserably about Melanie Sloan and her ethics watchdog group-so she must be doing something right.
If you paid close attention to the media lately, you would have heard many of the politicians who've been drowning in scandal pinning the blame for their problems on one woman-as if the mere mention of her name would somehow float them to safety.
Charged with taking payoffs from Jack Abramoff's clients? Blame Melanie Sloan. Under FBI investigation for steering government business to your daughter? Blame Melanie Sloan. Indicted for accepting bribes of millions of dollars, antique furniture, cars, boats and houses? Blame Melanie Sloan.
"I know who it is," former Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) said when confronted by the news that the FBI was launching an investigation into him and his daughter. "It's a woman who runs an organization called CREW..."
"Melanie Sloan, she's executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington," said Rush Limbaugh on his show last year, complaining about her work. "She's also a former aide to Sen. Schumer and Rep. Conyers, so we know what she's made of."
"It's ridiculous," says 41-year-old Melanie Sloan from her modest office in Washington , D.C. "I do not control the Justice Department. If you believe the right-wing media, I'm all-powerful."
While it's true that she doesn't control the FBI, Sloan's ability to influence the mood, and even the membership, of Congress is beyond dispute. If it weren't for her and the organization she directs-Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)-Tom DeLay (R-Texas) might never have faced the ethics charges as Majority Leader in the House of Representatives that began his rapid decent from the heights of political power. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) might still be enjoying his meals at the Capitol dining room instead of in a prison mess hall. Various other members of Congress might not be pacing the halls at night, worried about indictments yet to come. And of course, the Democrats might still be the minority party in the House and the Senate.
"Corruption was a top issue in the midterm elections, and CREW was critical to the Democrats' success," says longtime Democratic pollster Celinda Lake . "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."
“I tried to warn Republicans,” says Tom Fitton, president of the ultraconservative legal group Judicial Watch. “You cannot countenance corruption and pretend it’s not there. Voters get very angry about that.” Even Fitton has a grudging admiration for CREW’s work. “Republicans have to understand that there’s a group out there that’s watching them closely, and that’s good.”
CREW was started by Sloan in 2003 to undertake a job few seemed to be doing in Washington: using the legal system and media to expose, deter and litigate legal and ethical wrongdoing by members of Congress. In the past three years the nonprofit group has pursued legal actions against 26 members of Congress-including a couple of Democrats-resulting in four resignations (all Republicans). Eleven of those members who have been pursued by CREW are now under federal investigation and eight whom CREW investigated lost their seats in the midterm elections.
Ironically, it was the success of the ultraconservative Judicial Watch-famous for its dogged pursuit of President Clinton over his alleged sexual harassment of Paula Jones-that provided the impetus for CREW's beginning. A litigator Sloan knew, Norman Eisen, was seeking someone to start a group that would provide a balance to such right-wing legal watchdogs.
“We were looking for somebody smart enough and tough enough to single- handedly take on that mission,” says Eisen. “And Melanie was the one.”
At the time CREW was formed, Sloan was an assistant U.S. attorney in D.C., working primarily on sex-crime cases. And she was happy. Having grown up financially comfortable, with a law degree from the University of Chicago, she always felt a need—a mandate, really—to give back to society, and so had begun her career in Congress. Starting in the early ’90s, she’d worked first in the Senate as nominations counsel for the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.). She then became counsel to the House Crime Subcommittee under then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), drafting portions of the Violence Against Women Act. By the time Eisen asked her to take on CREW, though, she saw that government corruption was rampant—yet not enough was being done about it.
Sloan began the job sitting alone in a small office with the promise of one year’s salary, a computer, a telephone and little more. Her mandate? Cleaning up the mess on Capitol Hill. Judicial Watch was to be her model, with a slight, though significant, difference: She would focus on wrongdoing in the public sphere, rather than in the private lives of politicians. Like that group, she would fight corruption not only with litigation, but by filing formal complaints with government
agencies, forcing them to do their jobs.
Sloan is the type of woman who talks fast, but no matter how quickly the words come out, they don’t have a chance of catching up to how fast she’s thinking. Yet when she talks about the beginning of CREW, she takes her time.
“I was excited about it, but also nervous,” she says. “It was a big risk, and I didn’t know if it was going to be successful or if we’d get the money. In fact, if I knew then what I know now, I’d never have done it. I was all by myself all the time and had to figure out what to do every day, and I had to get people to pay attention to me and I had to keep the lights on. The first year was very hard.”
It was hard not only because she was alone; Sloan had decided that as her first act, she would aim her legal slingshot at a Goliath who happened to be the most powerful politician in Washington, D.C.: Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
“Tom DeLay was the primary reason I took the job,” says Sloan. “I considered him to be one of the most corrupt politicians to ever walk through Washington. I knew that getting rid of DeLay would improve the entire culture of the city, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be known for.’”
In 2003, DeLay’s stranglehold on Congress was so strong that it seemed he had hijacked the entire democratic process and locked it in a bank vault right along with him. And then there was the K Street Project. Started in the late 1980s by conservative activist Grover Norquist, it was an attempt to pressure corporations and trade associations to hire Republican lobbyists and donate to Republicans— and Republicans only.
Under DeLay’s congressional leadership, the K Street Project became another way of consolidating power and exacting revenge. Democratic lobbyists were allegedly black-listed from setting foot in certain congressional offices, and with Republicans in control of Congress, that meant that legislation favored by a lobbying firm or trade association that had hired Democrats would never see the light of day.
“It was basically a pay-to-play system,” says Sloan. “DeLay realized the way to consolidate power was to get more money; that’s how you win elections. So he made sure the Republicans had a lot more money by telling those with business in Washington that not only did they have to cough up money to Republicans but they would be penalized if they gave money to Democrats.”
For example, it was widely reported that in 1998, DeLay badgered the Electronic Industries Alliance when it hired former Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy as its president. Reports at the time said that GOP leaders actually held up a vote on an issue affecting the alliance in retaliation for that hire.
A few years later, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) faced a similar problem after they hired Democrat Dan Glickman as president. Reportedly, as punishment, GOP leaders left over $1 billion in tax credits to movie studios out of a corporate tax bill.
Although DeLay’s behavior had been widely discussed and occasionally covered by the media, few seemed interested in calling him to account for his misconduct: not his colleagues in Congress nor reporters in Washington.
“People said, ‘Doesn’t this happen all the time?’” says Sloan. I don’t like that answer. Just because it happens doesn’t make it legal.”
Sloan was determined to find justice, no matter where it was hiding. But how does one woman, working alone, bring down a man whose ruthless pursuit of Republican domination earned him the nickname “the Hammer”? Tenaciously, aggressively, one step at a time.
Sloan filed complaints with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission asking for audits of DeLay’s political action committee, ARMPAC— resulting in the commission levying one of its largest fines ($115,000) and forcing ARMPAC to close its doors. CREW also brought to light the way DeLay twisted arms on the floor of the House, notably in a case in which CREW asked the Department of Justice to initiate a grand-jury investigation into whether DeLay had literally offered a member of Congress financial support for his son’s Congressional campaign in exchange for a vote on the Republican-backed Medicare bill.
Finally, and perhaps most effectively, CREW drafted an ethics complaint against DeLay and managed to find a Democratic Congress member who would file it. No small feat, since it meant that the congressman, former Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), would be breaking an unofficial (but widely reported) seven-year truce that prevented members of either party from filing ethics complaints against each other. The outcome: DeLay was admonished by the ethics committee on two counts—for conduct that suggested political donors were promised special access to DeLay regarding pending legislation, and for using a federal agency to intervene in a political conflict in Texas. (He was also admonished in the separate case of the Medicare vote.) To which Republicans retaliated by purging the committee of its chair and two other members, all Republicans, replacing them with two representatives who had donated to DeLay’s legal fund and a chair more loyal to DeLay.
The Old Testament prescribes a scapegoat to those who are trying to absolve themselves of guilt and sin. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a man such as DeLay, who speaks so often about his own religiosity, would try to pin the blame on others when he found himself in trouble. In the wake of the admonishments, DeLay went after Sloan, having his attorney send a 33- page memo to Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) on the Rules Committee asking him to hold CREW in contempt of Congress. Nothing ever came of the unusual request.
Later, a beleaguered DeLay complained about CREW as a group, assuming it was behind efforts to get rid of him. “It was all set up with [CREW]— they’re out there doing the media stuff, paying for ads,” DeLay said in an interview with the Washington Times. “One ad would start, stop at the end of the week, a new ad from another organization would start up—my, isn’t that a coincidence? That would go on for weeks.”
For the record, CREW did not run ads against DeLay. Not even one.
“The day I knew Tom DeLay would go down was when I read in The Washington Post that he had dinner in a federal building and one of the restaurant managers told him, ‘You can’t smoke in here. It’s against the rules of the federal government,’” says Sloan. “DeLay said, ‘I am the federal government, ’ and tried to get them to change the rules. After that, I knew it was just a matter of time.”
In 2005 a Texas grand jury indicted DeLay on criminal charges, filed by crusading Austin district attorney Ronnie Earle, saying that he had conspired to violate campaign finance laws. DeLay was forced to step down from his position as majority leader and ultimately resigned from Congress in June 2006. The Justice Department is currently looking into whether DeLay’s wife received a salary for a job that she allegedly didn’t really hold. As he awaits trial, DeLay says he’s writing a book about his religious beliefs and his “passion” for America.
The steady drumbeat of scandal surrounding DeLay, and the constant reminders of his hubris and lust for power, played no small part in the mounting public disgust against incumbent Republicans that culminated in midterm election losses. How ironic, as DeLay had hoped that his legacy would be the Republican Party’s lasting hold on Congress.
“I’ll be done with Tom DeLay when he’s in jail,” says Sloan. “I don’t know if it’s going to happen in Texas or not, but I think he’s going to be indicted here [D.C.] in the [Jack] Abramoff scandal. Abramoff has been cooperating [with prosecutors], and one of the members he was closest to was Tom DeLay, so I would expect an indictment and possibly prison time. He could be facing 10 years.”
Besides helping derail DeLay’s political career, Sloan and her colleagues have exposed, instigated investigations into, the alleged illegal activity of other members of Congress. They include:
- Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), now in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges of bribery, conspiracy and tax evasion (CREW drafted an ethics complaint bringing attention to his illegal dealings after investigating Cunningham’s overpriced sale of his house to a military contractor).
- Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to fraud and making false statements in the Abramoff scandal (CREW launched a media campaign, hoping to bring his misdeeds to the Justice Department’s attention).
- Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas): CREW filed a complaint against him with the Justice Department for questionable Abramoff-related political contributions.
- Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), allegedly millions of dollars to clients of one of his closest friends in exchange for their political donations.
- Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.): allegations include conspiracy and bribery, as well as misusing federal resources in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
- Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), under investigation for backing legislation to benefit a military contractor that employs his father.
- And even former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), under investigation for insider trading and violations of securities law.
“This past Congress really was different,” says Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Look, I’ve been around Washington for 37 years and this is worse than I ever saw it. The attitude people had was, I’ll violate the norms, screw them, this is our turn. The willingness to destroy the ethics process and the amount of money spent, it really was a culture of corruption.”
Today, Sloan’s not alone any more: CREW has a staff of 13, six of them attorneys, and a stable bank account thanks to donors. Sloan, along with her communications director Naomi Seligman Steiner and chief counsel Anne L. Weismann, fields more than a hundred calls every month from journalists eager to hear about the latest scandal on Capitol Hill. The number of cases the group is involved with keeps growing as well.
CREW is serving as lead counsel in the civil case brought by former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, Joseph Wilson, against no less than Vice President Dick Cheney, White House advisor Karl Rove and former White House advisor Scooter Libby. They are charged with deliberately exposing Plame’s undercover CIA identity in retaliation for her husband’s criticism of intelligence used to justify the decision to go to war in Iraq.
CREW has also stepped into a Big Tobacco case, filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Justice, asking for documents related to its decision to dramatically lower the civil penalties it was seeking against tobacco companies from $130 billion to $10 billion. And in another case, CREW has filed an IRS complaint against two ultraconservative, abstinence-only nonprofit groups in South Dakota for allegedly violating their tax status by lobbying.
While being effective has its rewards, it has also made CREW a lightning rod for conservative groups and Republican critics. “This is a group of very partisan Democrats and their aim is to destroy citizens’ organizations with whose views they disagree,” says American Conservative Union board member Cleta Mitchell, who has represented some of the members of Congress investigated by CREW. “Their claims of being nonpartisan are laughable. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who lost his re-election bid due, in part, to accusations of corruption publicized by CREW, has said: “It is common knowledge that CREW is a liberal-activist organization masquerading as a government watchdog group.”
While it’s true that the majority of CREW’s targets have been Republicans, there is a good explanation for that, according to Sloan: “The fact is you have to have power to abuse it and the Democrats haven’t had any. You’d have been foolish to pay off a Democrat because they couldn’t do anything for you.”
CREW has criticized alleged wrongdoing by Democrats, including incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). More recently, it criticized Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) backing of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) for the position of House majority leader because of his past ethics controversies. In addition, several Democrats made CREW’s list of the most corrupt members of Congress, including Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).
Now that the Democrats are in control of the House and the Senate, Sloan is looking closely at how well that party’s leaders keep their promise of routing out corruption. However, if the Democrats should sink into that warm, inviting cesspool of political corruption, she promises that CREW will be there, calling for investigations.
“Corrupt politicians don’t have a place in Congress,” she says. “If they want to get rich, they need to find another job. The pay is public. People know what they’re going to make when they get in that job, and if they don’t like it they shouldn’t take it. It’s not a place to go to get rich or to live like you’re rich and I think members of Congress have forgotten that.”
Sloan pauses and thinks for a moment.
“Most people really think you can’t knock the system and one person can’t make a difference, but I don’t believe that. One person can make a difference— you just have to try really, really hard.” For more information and updates on these and other congressional scandals, see www.msmagazine.com.
Linda Burstyn is a Los Angeles-based writer. She was awarded an Emmy for her work on ABC News' Nightline.