Roll Call article baselessly suggested CREW "attack[s]" motivated by donor interests

››› ››› KIRSTIN ELLISON

In a January 29 Roll Call article about Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Paul Singer suggested that the organization's watchdog activities are motivated by the political objectives of its donors. But two of the donations Singer highlighted came well after CREW's initial actions, and Singer offered no evidence that CREW's actions were motivated by the interests of its donors.

In a January 29 Roll Call article about Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which, according to its website, is a "non-profit legal watchdog group dedicated to holding public officials accountable for their actions," reporter Paul Singer suggested that the organization's watchdog activities are motivated by the political objectives of its donors. Singer wrote:

The ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has made its mark by issuing dozens of complaints since 2003 alleging that Members of Congress have taken official actions that benefit their families, friends or financial benefactors.

But a review of entities against which CREW has filed complaints and information about its donors suggests that the organization may be guilty of the same practice -- attacking groups and individuals who are the foes of CREW's donors.

The organization refuses to reveal information about its donors, and Deputy Director Naomi Seligman told Roll Call that "donors play no role in CREW's decisions as to the groups or politicians we target."

Several news stories -- in this newspaper as well as in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and others


have pointed out that much of CREW's funding comes from liberal groups and big donors to Democratic candidates and causes. And all but a handful of its complaints against Members of Congress have targeted Republicans.

But in some cases, there appear to be deeper links between the agenda of the donor and CREW's attacks.

But two of the donations Singer highlighted in his article came well after CREW's initial actions, and Singer offered no evidence that CREW's actions were motivated by the interests of its donors.

As a purported example, Singer reported:

In February 2006, CREW asked the Senate Finance Committee to investigate the Center for Union Facts, an anti-union group, and its sister organization, the Center for Consumer Freedom, which CREW claimed are "front organizations for for-profit industry entities." The complaint noted that the Center for Union Facts Web site had "negative information about unions," including the Service Employees International Union. Later that year, CREW launched a Freedom of Information Act request, followed by a lawsuit, to get the Department of Labor to hand over documents regarding the department's contacts with the founder of the two centers.

On Sept. 1, 2006, CREW received $75,000 from the SEIU, according to documents that the union filed with the Department of Labor.

"CREW has long targeted Richard Berman, the executive director of the Center for Union Facts, the Center for Consumer Freedom and other alleged charities, for doing the bidding of business behind the veil of nonprofits," [CREW Deputy Director Naomi] Seligman said.

Singer did not, however, report that Seligman's statement was accurate: CREW has been targeting Berman's organizations and activities at least as far back as November 2004, long before CREW's February 2006 letter to the Senate Finance Committee and the later donation from SEIU Singer cited. Moreover, CREW's February 2006 letter came one day after -- as reported in The Washington Post -- "advertisements in The Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, introduced the Center for Union Facts and its Web site, UnionFacts.com." (Seligman is a former employee of Media Matters for America.)

Singer also highlighted a grant to CREW from the Gill Foundation:

The Gill Foundation is heavily invested in organizations advocating gay and lesbian rights. One of the prime antagonists of the gay rights movement is Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), who introduced the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Two weeks before the 2004 election, CREW filed a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging that Musgrave's campaign was operating out of her district office in Loveland, Colo. Musgrave Chief of Staff Guy Short said the allegation was untrue. He said Musgrave's office never was contacted by the Justice Department and to the best of his knowledge the allegation was never investigated by the DOJ.

In September 2005, CREW named Musgrave to its list of the "13 Most Corrupt" Members of Congress, and filed a complaint against her before the FEC in February 2007. The FEC dismissed that complaint.

In September 2006, CREW filed complaints with the IRS and the Postal Service against two "anti-gay marriage organizations" in Minnesota for allegedly supporting a state Senate candidate.

The Gill Foundation donated $125,000 to CREW in 2006, according to the foundation's annual report.

But Singer's suggestion that CREW's actions against Musgrave were prompted by a donor is again undermined by the timeline he acknowledges in the article; CREW's first complaint against Musgrave came in 2004, well before the 2006 Gill Foundation grant Singer cited.

Later in the article, after noting Republican complaints that "the overwhelming majority of CREW's targets are GOP officeholders or allied organizations," Singer reported:

CREW has issued some press releases critical of Democrats, but has not necessarily followed up with formal complaints. CREW has named Democratic Reps. John Murtha (Pa.), Alan Mollohan (W.Va.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) to its "most corrupt" list, but never has released a separate ethics complaint against any of them.

Yet, Singer did not mention that CREW has taken action beyond simply issuing press releases against Waters. On January 17, CREW sent a letter to the House Administration Committee requesting that the committee "add grandchildren to the list of relatives members of Congress are prohibited from employing in their congressional offices" after The Hill reported that Waters' chief of staff and press secretary is her grandson.

From Roll Call's January 29 article "Watchdog, Donors Share Common Foes":

The ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has made its mark by issuing dozens of complaints since 2003 alleging that Members of Congress have taken official actions that benefit their families, friends or financial benefactors.

But a review of entities against which CREW has filed complaints and information about its donors suggests that the organization may be guilty of the same practice -- attacking groups and individuals who are the foes of CREW's donors.

The organization refuses to reveal information about its donors, and Deputy Director Naomi Seligman told Roll Call that "donors play no role in CREW's decisions as to the groups or politicians we target."

Several news stories -- in this newspaper as well as in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and others -- have pointed out that much of CREW's funding comes from liberal groups and big donors to Democratic candidates and causes. And all but a handful of its complaints against Members of Congress have targeted Republicans.

But in some cases, there appear to be deeper links between the agenda of the donor and CREW's attacks.

In February 2006, CREW asked the Senate Finance Committee to investigate the Center for Union Facts, an anti-union group, and its sister organization, the Center for Consumer Freedom, which CREW claimed are "front organizations for for-profit industry entities." The complaint noted that the Center for Union Facts Web site had "negative information about unions," including the Service Employees International Union. Later that year, CREW launched a Freedom of Information Act request, followed by a lawsuit, to get the Department of Labor to hand over documents regarding the department's contacts with the founder of the two centers.

On Sept. 1, 2006, CREW received $75,000 from the SEIU, according to documents that the union filed with the Department of Labor.

"CREW has long targeted Richard Berman, the executive director of the Center for Union Facts, the Center for Consumer Freedom and other alleged charities, for doing the bidding of business behind the veil of nonprofits," Seligman said.

[...]

The Gill Foundation is heavily invested in organizations advocating gay and lesbian rights. One of the prime antagonists of the gay rights movement is Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), who introduced the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Two weeks before the 2004 election, CREW filed a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging that Musgrave's campaign was operating out of her district office in Loveland, Colo. Musgrave Chief of Staff Guy Short said the allegation was untrue. He said Musgrave's office never was contacted by the Justice Department and to the best of his knowledge the allegation was never investigated by the DOJ.

In September 2005, CREW named Musgrave to its list of the "13 Most Corrupt" Members of Congress, and filed a complaint against her before the FEC in February 2007. The FEC dismissed that complaint.

In September 2006, CREW filed complaints with the IRS and the Postal Service against two "anti-gay marriage organizations" in Minnesota for allegedly supporting a state Senate candidate.

The Gill Foundation donated $125,000 to CREW in 2006, according to the foundation's annual report.

[...]

Republicans complain that the overwhelming majority of CREW's targets are GOP officeholders or allied organizations. CREW denies a partisan bias to its activities.

"CREW is a nonpartisan organization that targets unethical conduct," Seligman wrote in an e-mail. "The fact is, you must have power to abuse it and until recently, the Democrats didn't have much power. In essence, the Democrats didn't have anything to sell. Now that the Democrats are in power, they will have opportunities for corruption that were previously reserved to Republicans and it is likely we will see more Democratic corruption."

CREW has issued some press releases critical of Democrats, but has not necessarily followed up with formal complaints. CREW has named Democratic Reps. John Murtha (Pa.), Alan Mollohan (W.Va.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) to its "most corrupt" list, but never has released a separate ethics complaint against any of them.

CREW did file a complaint earlier this month against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) -- who voted for the Iraq War and consistently ranks as one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate -- based on a December news story in The Washington Post. The story alleged that Landrieu inserted an earmark into the 2002 District of Columbia appropriations bill to benefit a company that a few weeks earlier had held a fundraiser for her. Landrieu since has provided documents indicating that she proposed the earmark six months before the fundraiser and that then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) requested the same earmark in the intervening months.

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Roll Call
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Paul Singer
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