Politics & Government

Washington watchdog adjusts to life with partisan roommates

WASHINGTON -- For more than a decade, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, has scrutinized and assailed federal agencies and politicians from both parties to root out unethical behavior in government. Over the past two years, however, some of the group's most influential work has been quietly dropped.

Annual rankings of the "most corrupt" members of Congress and a bi-annual list of the "worst" governors have stopped. A pipeline of in-depth reports on issues ranging from financial markets to timber-industry lobbying has gone dry. The group walked away from a spat over Hillary Clinton's treatment of e-mails as secretary of state, even after an inspector general found that CREW's public records request had been improperly denied.

Many of those projects, according to CREW, were set aside to reorient its focus toward campaign finance violations by political candidates and the outside groups that support them. The shift also coincided with a leadership change in 2014, when CREW, looking to bring on a new board chair with a strong fundraising base, hired David Brock, a Democratic operative with deep ties to liberal donors. That network of contributors has been the force behind a collection of groups that Brock has created to oppose Republicans and conservatives, as well as one devoted to defending Clinton.

Now, CREW shares office space, a board member and fundraising executive with the groups under Brock's purview, and as a result is intertwined with the kinds of organizations it investigates. Some former staffers say that Brock, who has moved into the vice chairman role, has pulled the watchdog into a partisan agenda and, in doing so, weakened its impact.

CREW says that isn't the case. "The board membership may change, but we have always maintained the highest level of integrity and absolute independence in the work we do -- and that remains the case," said Jordan Libowitz, the watchdog's communications director.

Brock, who declined to comment for this story, is the founder of American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC that does opposition research on Republicans, an associated foundation, and Media Matters for America, a charitable organization that aims to expose right-wing bias in media. Brock also started Correct the Record, a media rapid response team that defends Clinton, and has served on the board of Priorities USA, the main super PAC supporting the former first lady's 2016 campaign for president.

Founded in 2003 as a federal ethics watchdog, CREW gained a much wider portfolio, unmasking corporate front groups and calling out stock manipulators. The group has gone after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his aides' alleged use of private email accounts to conduct official business, as well as groups founded by billionaire brothers Charles Koch and David Koch over political spending. In one of its biggest victories, CREW won an argument against the administration of George W. Bush to account for and preserve millions of documents that otherwise would have been lost.

By 2013, CREW was filing an average of eight federal lawsuits each year, with a peak of 15 in 2007, public records show. In the nearly two years since Brock arrived in August 2014, the group has filed a total of four. Meanwhile, CREW also mothballed a number of projects related to government transparency, congressional corruption, and so-called Astroturf lobbying campaigns that purport to represent grassroots movements but are primarily the product of a few wealthy donors, a Bloomberg analysis of CREW's work showed.

"They're on the back burner," Libowitz said of the projects. "Our biggest focus is fighting the influence of money on politics, specifically trying to find places where people have violated the law, and file complaints against them."

So far in this election cycle, CREW has filed about 14 complaints with the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission over alleged tax or campaign finance violations. Just one of those has been against a Democrat. Groups supporting Republican presidential candidates have drawn particular scrutiny. CREW accused Right to Rise USA, the super PAC that supported Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's failed run, and Conservative Solutions PAC, the super PAC that backed Sen. Marco Rubio, of taking so-called straw man donations from recently formed limited liability corporations that shield donors' identities.

Louis Mayberg, a co-founder and former board chair of CREW, criticized the group for what he says is uneven targeting of Republicans. Mayberg, who resigned from the CREW's board in March 2015, said that trend contributed to his decision to step down. "I have no desire to serve on a board of an organization devoted to partisanship," Mayberg said.

According to Libowitz, CREW's results shouldn't be surprising: "The vast majority of dark money spending has come from conservative groups, so it holds to reason that the majority of rule breakers would as well," the CREW spokesman said, adding that Brock doesn't tell staffers whom to investigate.

Mayberg said another key factor that encouraged him to depart was the decision in 2015 to back away from the controversy involving Clinton over her use of a private email server while at the State Department, an issue that has dogged her campaign for the White House. When the New York Times reported in March 2015 that Clinton had potentially violated federal laws on preserving government records by using a personal account for work, Anne Weismann, CREW's former chief counsel who had already been seeking Clinton's emails through public records requests, said she was told to stand down.

"It was made quite clear to me that CREW and I would not be commenting publicly on the issue of Secretary Clinton using a personal email account to conduct agency business," said Weismann, who also left the group last year. "The fact that we said nothing on that subject says volumes."

In January, the State Department's Office of Inspector General concluded in a report that CREW's petition for Clinton's emails had been improperly denied. CREW has decided not to pursue the matter, said Libowitz, who declined to comment directly on Weismann's claim. Meanwhile, Brock's Correct the Record super PAC has actively rebutted critical reports on Clinton's use of her private email server.

Formed in 2013 as a subsidiary to American Bridge, Correct the Record's website says that it is a "strategic research and rapid response team designed to protect Hillary Clinton from baseless attacks." Its employees work out of the same office that houses Brock's other groups, including CREW. Correct the Record registered as a super PAC in June 2015. Its biggest donor so far is Priorities USA, the super PAC supporting Clinton, which gave it $1 million. Clinton's campaign kicked in about $276,000.

Correct the Record has been criticized by law experts, including Lawrence Noble of the Campaign Legal Center, for working directly with the Clinton campaign, even though super PACs are prohibited from coordinating with candidates. Brock's group has said it can do this because the law only forbids the coordination of expenditures on broadcast and cable advertisements. Correct the Record only publishes political messages on the Internet, an activity the group says is exempt. Correct the Record declined to comment.

"While they certainly push the envelope, they haven't gone over that line," Libowitz said of Correct the Record. "Their critics say they're pushing into a gray area, but we tend to focus more on clear violations" of campaign finance law.