Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics is known as a public-spirited organization that hunts for corruption in Washington. Today, its executive director, Melanie Sloan, announced that she was departing the organization to join the lobbying firm of Lanny Davis, the former Clinton White House counsel now best known for putting a liberal veneer on corporate policy and foreign dictators. While the spin around the move is that Davis' firm is gearing up to defend Democrats from investigations expected to be launched by House Republicans, there's more to this story than that.
In October, Mike Elk wrote a piece for the Prospect laying out how Davis, Sloan, and Tom Matzzie all worked against student-loan reform without disclosing their connections to the major for-profit universities that would have been hurt by the reforms designed to prevent them from taking advantage of students and wasting taxpayer dollars. Read the whole thing, but here's a relevant excerpt:
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), another prominent watchdog that normally focuses on the unsavory relationships between members of Congress and their funders, also joined the attack, filing a complaint with the Senate HELP Committee criticizing Eisman's testimony -- the first time the organization has intervened in a policy dispute like this.
CREW concedes that it did not consult any experts about short-sellers' role in the financial system, nor did it look at Eisman's track record; the complaint merely cited Davis' op-ed and a Politico article that quoted Matzzie and the head of the for-profit schools' front group, The Career Colleges Association. Sloan, CREW's director, would make the same argument in The Huffington Post, suggesting that the new regulations would benefit financial speculators more than students. She, like Matzzie and Davis, did not mention that another person with a financial conflict of interest -- Sharon Thomas Parrot of DeVry University (a for-profit school) -- testified that same day.
...CREW has also launched a legal probe of the new regulations' advocates. The organization filed FOIA requests with the Department of Education for all e-mail between the department, Nassirian, and Pauline Abernathy, an education advocate at the Institute for College Access and Success, alleging that Eisman influenced them and the department's regulatory proposals. Eisman says that while he has met Abernathy and Nassirian in passing, he does not make political donations, and both Nassirian and Abernathy deny they have received any money from him or any of his associates. Both their organizations offered to open their books to prove this, a request both CREW and Democracy Alliance refused.
"Never in my life did I imagine I would be attacked by an organization with a reputation as ethics watchdogs like CREW," Nassirian says. "I worked against the for-profit school industry for 20 years, long before I knew Steve Eisman even existed. For CREW to implicitly allege that I am bought off by Steve Eisman is outrageous."
CREW would go on to complain about the piece, but as I wrote at the time, they still didn't answer important questions about their relationship with for-profit colleges and their decision to intervene on this issue. It remains unclear whether Sloan's work on this issue had anything to do with her departure.
At least some of CREW's leadership aren't impressed with Sloan's decision. Salon writer Glenn Greenwald, who serves as a member of CREW's board, tweeted today that "leaving CREW to work for Lanny Davis would be like leaving the ACLU to work for Dick Cheney." Ouch.
Update: I e-mailed Greenwald to ask him about the circumstances of Sloan's departure from CREW:
I just joined CREW's board a few months ago, and since then, there have been two Board meetings -- the first one I attended and the second one, which was held very recently, I had to miss, so I learned about her departure through public reports and know nothing beyond what's in those.
In general, I've been very impressed with Melanie Sloan's integrity and principled application of ethical standards to all politicians regardless of party or ideology. That's why I joined the Board. That said, I do think there were some serious questions that needed answers raised by the student loan issue.
And I find it particularly bizarre that someone would leave an organization devoted to ethics in politics in order go to work for Lanny Davis of all people -- one of the sleaziest, most ethics-free influence-peddlers Washington has never known. As I said, the only comparable analogy I can think of is leaving the ACLU to go to work for Dick Cheney -- to me, Dick Cheney is to civil liberties what Lanny Davis is to ethics in politics.
-- Tim Fernholz