The Watchdog Who Came in from the Cold

The end of the Melanie Sloan era at CREW.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, poses for a photo in her office, Thursday, October 19, 2006, in Washington, D.C.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, poses for a photo in her office, Thursday, October 19, 2006, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Chris Greenberg/Bloomberg News

It looked like a minor announcement, but it was actually news that could change the way that reporters write stories about Washington corruption. This morning, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington founder Melanie Sloan co-founded Triumph, "a new firm specializing in crisis and disruption strategies." Sloan was leaving CREW after 12 years—years in which CREW churned out reports on political bad behavior, which made Sloan a go-to pundit on corruption. 

Eliot Spitzer? She called on him to resign as governor of New York. (He did.) Mark Sanford? She called on him to resign as governor South Carolina. (He didn't.) When former Representative Anthony Weiner was embroiled in a sexting scandal, Sloan wondered about the "over-reaction," but the point was that CREW was in the conversation. Sloan's ubiquity as an arbiter of what was right and wrong even extended to Dell's computers, as the company learned when it messed with the wrong customer's next-day fixing policy.

http://youtu.be/0ylO8QRM64k

If today's news induces deja vu, that's because in 2010, Sloan appeared to be leaving CREW for Lanny Davis's lobbying and communications firm. On the left, that was seen as a natural evolution from Sloan's criticism of proposed rules cracking down on for-profit colleges. In early 2011, Sloan decided to stay with CREW, but she kept on hammering the supporters of for-profit college regulation by begging questions about why their efforts were supported by hedge funders. The education fight was complex, just the sort of thing that could be stymied by confusion and intra-movement infighting—and it worked.

Still, CREW and Sloan remained relevant, and their media library is evidence of how often they're cited by reporters trying to unpack a story of everyday corruption. It wasn't until 2014 that conservatives, who had long been rankled by CREW, found a reason to dismiss it. That was when CREW merged with David Brock's network of progressive organizations. In a report for Breitbart.com, Jonathan Strong got the gleeful reaction of then-House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa.

"CREW characterizing itself as a nonpartisan good government group is a joke, and has been for some time," said Issa's spokeswoman Becca Watkins. "Being absorbed by Media Matters should make that clear, except for all but the most naïve and liberally partisan. 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."

The Brock-era CREW didn't seem to differ at all from the pre-Brock CREW. But Sloan is moving on, with Triumph expected to work on CREW strategy, while the extant CREW staff take on her old role of advocacy and communication. The old CREW magic, and the power of Melanie Sloan to shape a political corruption story, will be tested. Most conservatives and quite a few liberals will hope that it fails that test. 

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