Melanie Sloan's Team of Watch Dogs Is
Taking the Crooks To Court
We filed suit against the Justice Department...
The Justice Department has documents that were stolen from the computers
of Democrats, but didn't call Democratic Senators to inform them that,
hey, somebody's obviously been accessing your documents, because we
have them. And the question is, why didn't the Justice Department return
them? I think the Justice Department is going to have a hell of a time
in court with that argument.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
The mood among progressives as we gear up for George W. Bush’s coronation
is to keep fighting this administration's all-out assault on democracy.
But progressives must learn that it's best not to fight alone, but to
connect with and support fellow patriots and organizations that are willing
to punch back. One such tough-as-nails organization that won't lie down
but has gone on the offensive against corrupt members of the Bush administration
is "CREW," or Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington,
with its savvy Executive Director Melanie Sloan. BuzzFlash readers and
progressives need to know about this dynamic organization.
After it was reported that conservative pundit Armstrong Williams received
$240,000 from the Department of Education to shill for "No Child
Left Behind," CREW filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
requests to 22 government agencies, including all cabinet agencies, to
pursue the scandal.
CREW is also relentlessly pursuing Majority Leader Tom DeLay, perhaps
the most corrupt politician in America. CREW has been pushing the House
Ethics Committee to investigate whether he played a role in any illegal
fundraising by committees he directly controlled or violated ethics rules
in the course of his leadership of TRMPAC and ARMPAC, both of which are
the subject of the criminal indictments.
It takes an exceptional leader like Melanie Sloan, and the fine team she
has assembled, to pull off the immense work of CREW--filing lawsuits,
legal actions, and FOIA requests on an almost daily basis. CREW's workload
speaks to the rampant corruption in the Bush administration and Republican
Ms. Sloan previously served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District
of Columbia from 1998 through early 2003. Before becoming a prosecutor,
Ms. Sloan was Minority Counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary
Committee from 1995 to 1998. She worked directly with the Honorable John
Conyers, the ranking member of the Committee, specializing in criminal
enforcement issues, including the Independent Counsel law.
In 1994, Ms. Sloan was Counsel for the Crime Subcommittee of the House
Judiciary Committee, working for then Representative Charles Schumer.
She drafted portions of the 1994 Crime Bill, including the Violence Against
Women Act, and worked on issues including the death penalty, mandatory
minimum sentencing, and habeas corpus. She received her undergraduate
and law degrees from the University of Chicago and has published in the
Yale Law and Policy Review, the Legal Times, and the
We spoke with Melanie Sloan about corruption in government, sex discrimination
at ViaCom in their attempt to hire only a male lobbyist, and Tom DeLay's
unethical and potentially criminal activities that his own party hypocritically
* * *
BuzzFlash: Since the election, it seems most
progressives want to keep fighting to defend our democracy. They're looking
for institutions and organizations that are doing the same. Your organization,
CREW, which stands for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington,
is fighting on several fronts. More progressives should know about CREW
and your efforts. Could you just start off by giving us a little background
CREW started about two years ago now, and it was started to parallel conservative
organizations that were already out there using the legal system to highlight
ethical issues in government officials. Groups like Judicial Watch, for
example, were very active during the nineties. But CREW was started because
those organizations, which had been so vocal in the nineties, really had
nothing to say when the Bush Administration came in. We felt that there
were unmet needs--that there are lots of great organizations that talk
about government ethics, but they don't aggressively use the legal system.
And that's what CREW does, that's what sets it apart. We look for ways
to use the legal system to go after unethical government officials.
Your organization is essentially a watch dog group for all types of corruption.
Would you say overall that the U.S. government is corrupt? How do you
define corruption, and how pervasive is it?
In the current Congress, it's unfortunately become quite pervasive. I
think there are a lot of examples in the current Administration where
government officials are using their positions to help their friends to
become more powerful and a lot richer. And that's how CREW views unethical
conduct. We're not concerned with things like who somebody may or may
not have slept with. We care about whether politicians and government
officials are acting in the public interest. That's what we emphasize
when we look at potential corruption and government officials.
How can corruption be cleaned up? Do you advocate for specific pieces
of legislation that would help close various loopholes or curb some of
the corruption that does exist?
Well, just because there are loopholes doesn't mean somebody should use
them. Mostly we advocate that government officials monitor their own behavior,
and when they fail to do so or when they act unethically, we use the tools
at our disposal to try and force them to clean up their act. I do think
there are some big problems in ethics. For example, in Congress, there's
the House and Senate Ethics Committees, but they don't do anything. So
the problem isn't that there aren't ethics rules in Congress. It's that
no one is enforcing them. And unfortunately, that's also part of the problem
with ethics in the Administration. There may be rules, but they're not
enforced. And there is very little way for an outsider to come in and
insist that ethics rules be enforced.
One policy we helped draft would create a citizens' suit provision for
ethics violations, which is sort of like an environmental statute's ability--the
Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Citizens can step in and sue if
the federal government doesn't go after the leader or the one endangering
the wildlife or something like that. And there's a provision that people
can come in and sue. It's sort of a private Attorney General. And we would
advocate as to more provisions for ethics violations.
I want to talk to you about a handful of specific issues that you worked
on personally. There's a recent press release from your organization,
CREW, that called for an Equal Opportunity Commission investigation
into ViaCom for its hiring practices. Just to give our readers some background--the
company sent out an e-mail for a job opening that reads: "We need
to hire a junior lobbyist PAC manager. Attached is a job description.
Salary is $85,000 to $90,000. Must be male with Republican stripes."
If this isn't an example of a smoking gun about the preponderance of the
boys' club, I don't know what is.
First ViaCom tried to deny it, and they sent an e-mail saying that that
was just an informal e-mail somebody sent to a friend. I guess, somehow,
informal discrimination is therefore acceptable discrimination. And then,
after a couple of bloggers got ahold of it, ViaCom said that it was a
hoax--the initial e-mail was just a hoax. It wasn't a hoax. It wasn't
a joke. It was nothing written in a particularly joke-y way. Of course
they wanted a Republican. And unfortunately, you can't sue somebody for
only hiring Republicans. But you can sue them for hiring only men. Unfortunately
we don't yet have a plaintiff. I don't know of anyone yet who's been discriminated
against by ViaCom. But it certainly seems that the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission and Congress should investigate Viacom's hiring practices.
I find it remarkable that ViaCom would send an e-mail like that to, of
all places, Congress, which passed Title VII in the first place forty
It's outrageous. It's just so appalling. And that ViaCom thinks they can
somehow pop this off as nothing, when clearly they wanted a guy. And they've
also tried saying, well, they hire lots of women. I don't care if they
hire lots of women. I don't care if you fill the place with women. In
any particular hiring, you cannot sit there and keep that job and say
I only want a man.
You have to wonder about ViaCom. We looked at who they give money to,
as well, and they give very little money to women when we looked at Congressional
donations. They gave only to a handful of women, while they gave to large
numbers of men. Of course, they gave to more Republicans than Democrats.
But even within that, the number of women was minimal.
Another story that got buried which your organization did a lot of work
on was the story that staffers on the Senate Democratic Judiciary Committee
had their e-mail and various documents spied on by GOP staffers over the
course of eighteen months. And you filed a FOIA request to the Department
of Justice. Not too surprising, with John Ashcroft as the Attorney General,
the Justice Department failed to turn over many of those documents. Now
that the election is over, is there an investigation pending or has that
story just gone away?
We filed suit against the Justice Department, in federal court now, asking
that the court find the Department of Justice in violation of the Freedom
of Information Act, in their failing to give us the documents. The shocking
thing about that case is that the Justice Department has those documents
at all. The Justice Department has documents that were stolen from the
computers of Democrats, but didn't call Democratic Senators to inform
them that, hey, somebody's obviously been accessing your documents, because
we have them. And the question is, why didn't the Justice Department return
them? I think the Justice Department is going to have a hell of a time
in court with that argument. Instead of the Justice Department saying,
oh, we don't have them, the Justice Department is trying to say, yeah,
we do have them, but we're privileged. We don't have to turn those over.
And I think they're going to lose.
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have more problems with ethics and integrity
than the Republican Majority Leader, Tom DeLay--and some would even debate
that. Give us an update on the ethics charges against DeLay and his failure
to file his full financial report and release his financial records with
the IRS and the State of Texas with respect to PAC money and some potentially
unethical, or illegal, activity.
Melanie Sloan: The
biggest hope now in the DeLay matter is really whether the District Attorney
down in Texas will actually indict him. I'm a former prosecutor, and it
seems to me that they are going to have enough to indict DeLay. I think
what's happening now is the DA is probably trying to get some of the folks
we have indicted to talk about DeLay --get them to, what we call, flip.
And it seems like that might be happening.
On the Ethical Committee, the House Committee on Standards and Official
Conduct, still has pending before it the complaint against DeLay regarding
all of his TrimPac donations and all the corporate donations that were
made to TrimPac. If DeLay gets
indicted, then it's possible that, yes, the Committee will take that back
We are not going to just sit still on Tom DeLay. I do think he's the most
unethical politician in America today. We will be constantly looking for
ways to convince the rest of America that he is, in fact, as corrupt as
he seems, so that eventually he'll be ousted. There's just no place for
a man as corrupt as Tom DeLay in Congress, much less as the Majority Leader.
What would you say is the problem with corruption in America? Is it the
system? Is it the people running it? Is it a combination of both?
The biggest problem is that most Americans don't pay close enough attention,
because politicians could only be this corrupt because we keep voting
them back into office. If we made it a priority and said ethics are really
important, and we're not going to vote for unethical politicians, politicians
wouldn't be corrupt. That's the biggest problem. And then, because we
ignore it, politicians get away with all sorts of abominable behavior
like Tom DeLay does. Because the American public doesn't care enough to
vote unethical politicians out of office, Congress doesn't have to worry
about suffering repercussions for failing to take ethics seriously itself,
and doesn't feel the need to police itself.
I know you've been in Washington for many years. Are there any changes
now from years ago about the types of ethics complaints and issues? Or
are we still fighting essentially the same old issues but with different
people and different faces?
I think it's the same sort of issues. But with this Congress, and in the
last five years or so, it's gotten much worse in that the standards of
ethical conduct--what people are willing to publicly admit to--is just
much greater. Ten years ago you would not have seen somebody passing a
law, or passing a new rule, the Republicans recently did, saying, well,
even if you're indicted, you can stay as Majority Leader and stay in the
leadership--because that would be seen as being beyond the pale. Nothing
now is beyond the pale. As long as you're bringing in money, there's nothing
you can't get away with in this town. It's all about money. And, unfortunately,
one of the biggest problems in America today is our election finance system.
We need public financing for all elections. Politicians care about nothing
more than being reelected, and they need money to do that, so until we
address this issue, there probably won't be any huge changes.
BuzzFlash: You spoke earlier
about how difficult it is to get people to pay attention. Many ethical
complaints and concerns can be complicated, tracing the money and influence
from all kinds of sources, multiple lobbyists and political operatives
acting as middle people. It's far easier when it's just a sex scandal.
What advice do you have for other progressives? How can they go about
educating their neighbors about corruption in Washington when it can be
I think people have to pay attention to what's going on in Congress. When
it comes up, a lot of people don't even like to talk about politics at
the dinner table. But people should talk about it, and they should talk
about the specifics about what politicians are doing wrong, and why it's
not okay. In the end, the things that Tom DeLay is doing are not so hard
to understand. I think it's the press that doesn’t seem very interested
in reporting on these stories. Most of the mainstream press thinks, well,
this is just politics as usual in Washington. But everybody needs to be
insisting that we're not going to just stand by and accept this. If it
is politics as usual, then politics needs to change altogether. The whole
system needs to go. People need to just start insisting on higher standards
from both politicians and from the reporters who cover Washington.
As an organization that works on ethics, you've got your work cut out
for you for the next four years. What do you see as your focus during
the second George W. Bush presidential term?
Melanie Sloan: To
stay on top of these guys every step of the way, and to not let them get
away with anything. We view our role as to bring any ethical issue we
come across to the public's attention, and we think one of the best ways
to do that is through legal action. That's why we currently have three
lawsuits pending in the courts. And we will continue to file our lawsuits
when the Administration resists providing the information they're required
to under law, or when agencies violate the law.
Thank you so much for speaking with us.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
* * *
Great book on Tom DeLay--The Hammer: Tom DeLay: God, Money, and the
Rise of the Republican Congress
Tom DeLay, BuzzFlash Hypocrite of the Week, October 2, 2004
Tom DeLay, BuzzFlash Hypocrite of the Week, January 30, 2004