For years, Republicans caught in the cross-hairs of Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) have complained about its alleged liberal bias and tendency to investigate GOP officials with far greater frequency than Democrats.
Now one of the most virulently partisan Democrats in American politics is taking over the group: David Brock, the head of Media Matters.
Brock, who first rose to prominence as a right-wing reporter with scandal stories about President Bill Clinton he now says were filled with lies, is about as deeply involved in electing Democrats – and especially potential 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – as anyone.
That partisanship brings a cloud of suspicion over CREW’s future work, offers deep, satisfying vindication to its longtime critics, and has disappointed more neutral observers.
“I think it’s bad when someone who is clearly a partisan takes over an organization like this,” says Bill Allison, the editorial director of another watchdog group, the Sunlight Foundation.
CREW has done “amazing” work in the past, Allison is quick to note, but “when you have somebody like David Brock who is so clearly identified with one side… it will really change the perception of them.”
CREW’s past sparring partners are less conciliatory, seizing on the moment to dance on the grave of the group’s credibility.
“CREW characterizing itself as a nonpartisan good government group is a joke, and has been for some time. Being absorbed by Media Matters should make that clear, except for all but the most naïve and liberally partisan,” says Becca Watkins, a spokeswoman for House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa.
“CREW has long employed a strategy of occasionally acknowledging obvious and blatant ethical lapses of some Democrats in order to build credibility to make meritless and misleading claims about Republicans. CREW is long past due in publicly acknowledging its leftist leanings — becoming partners with Media Matters makes it official,” Watkins added.
In 2012, CREW filed an ethics complaint over Issa disclosing sealed information about the Fast and Furious scandal into the Congressional Record – unusual because watchdog groups usually fight for, not against, disclosure of government information.
Following the spat, Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said CREW was strategic about how it raised ethics concerns about Democratic politicians.
“It’s like in the movie ‘The Departed’ when the character Colin Sullivan figures out Frank Costello was an FBI informant and Costello says, ‘I never gave up anybody who wasn’t going down anyway,'” Hill said then.
In CREW’s defense, under departing director Melanie Sloan, the group did sometimes create real headaches for Democrats, even prompting liberal donors to flee and a rebuke from the Democracy Alliance, a network of left-wing millionaire and billionaire donors.
The starkest example was in 2006, when Sloan harshly criticized then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi for trying to install the late Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), immersed in scandal, as her Majority Leader.
And, as a reporter who sometimes relied on Sloan and others at the group for quotes, I never found any reticence to engage on pieces about Democrats.
But in the aggregate, most of the group’s ethics arrows have been shot at Republicans.
A GOP critic, following the news about Brock, passed on a dossier detailing the various ethics problems faced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that CREW has had nothing to say about, despite having commented on parallel situations in the past concerning Republicans.
The best example came this year, when Reid was caught paying his granddaughter’s jewelry business more than $31,000 from his campaign coffers. Despite having conducted a significant investigation into congressional nepotism – some of its best work – the group had nothing to say about Reid’s spending, which he eventually reimbursed from personal funds.
Another major combatant in the CREW, public relations firm Berman and Co., once put together a 3.5 inch stack of six months’ worth of CREW’s press releases, lawsuits, reports, and other materials targeting Republicans next to the 1/8 inch stack of similar materials directed at Democrats.
Richard Berman, the head of the firm, did not mince words when asked about Brock’s ascension. He said:
CREW’s merger with Media Matters proves what honest observers already knew: CREW was never an independent watchdog, but a liberal lapdog. CREW and its executive director Melanie Sloan made a business out of accusing others of a lack of transparency, while refusing to reveal CREW’s own donors–donors that no doubt benefited from the group’s disproportionate attacks on conservatives. This merger with one of the country’s most partisan left-wing organizations is an appropriate end for an organization that gave new meaning to the word ‘hypocrisy.’
The changes at CREW are happening swiftly. Mark Glaze, a former Mike Bloomberg aide who also worked under GOP ethics lawyer Trevor Potter, is now listed as the group’s press contact, rather than Derrick Crowe, its previous spokesman who sent out press releases as recently as two weeks ago.
Glaze was brought in to help with the transition and is actually on contract with Media Matters, he said.
Asked about the group’s direction under Brock, Glaze said, “Neither political party has a monopoly on corruption,” but said further decisions are subject to a “top-to-bottom review” of the organization.
“Transparency and good government are progressive values. I think the organizations associated with David have been working on those issues in different ways for years, and CREW and its professionals will bring an additional tool in that toolbox,” Glaze added.
Sloan, who is out of the office on vacation, did not reply to an email.