Politics

Sincerest Liberal Flattery for a Conservative Watchdog

Judicial Watch has hounded Democrats with lawsuits. Here's a group that hopes to do the same to Trump.

Weaponized.

Photographer: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Nobody on the conservative side has hounded Democrats, especially the Clintons, as relentlessly as the self-styled anti-corruption watchdog group Judicial Watch. It has loosed avalanches of lawsuits since its founding in 1994, most recently playing a major role in Hillary Clinton's e-mail controversy. Even its enemies acknowledge its effectiveness; one Clinton-supporting group has charged that Judicial Watch owes its impact to "a history of dishonest activism, promoting conspiracy theories."

So guess what Democratic activists, led by a prominent Clintonite, are doing? Creating their own version of Judicial Watch to take on Donald Trump.

You can't miss the irony of liberals copying something they've loudly deplored. Still, their plan could provide an effective counter to the president-elect's aversion to transparency and disdain for established ethical standards.

The plan will be launched at a South Florida retreat for Democratic donors during the weekend after Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. It aims to expand the small Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, nicknamed Crew, into a robust and litigious progressive version of Judicial Watch. The idea is to file endless freedom-of-information and legal actions against Trump, his administration and his family's business interests. It is being spearheaded by David Brock, a right-wing provocateur turned Clintonite and a prodigious fundraiser with a formidable network of activists.

"There is a dramatic public interest in stopping government corruption and demanding more transparency," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. "If they want to join, good."

There may be little common ground. Judicial Watch has brought actions against Republicans, notably former Vice President Dick Cheney's secretive energy task force, but has aimed most of its fire at Democrats. During President Barack Obama's years in the White House it filed more than 300 lawsuits and 3,000 requests for documents and information under the Freedom of Information Act.

There has been a lot of hype in twisting bureaucratic mistakes into supposed scandals. Think of the Internal Revenue Service's scrutiny of tax-exempt conservative groups and allegations of voter fraud.

But it was Judicial Watch that forced the issue of Clinton's use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of state, which may have cost her the presidential election. In addition, it produced embarrassing revelations about the Clinton Foundation and some close aides.

Fitton argues that Brock's political fundraising roots -- heading an anti-Republican research-and-response arm, an outfit looking for conservative media bias -- will diminish Crew's credibility. But Brock, a lightning rod for criticism, won't have a formal role.

The chair of Crew will be Norm Eisen, who founded the organization 13 years ago, and the vice chair will be Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota Law School professor. Eisen was the ethics counsel for Obama and Painter served in the same role under former President George W. Bush. The question is whether Crew will enlist a bulldog attorney, a progressive Fitton, to direct an aggressive venture. 

Brock's fundraising prowess will be critical. Judicial Watch has an annual budget of over $35 million and employs a dozen full-time lawyers, six investigators and other staff. Crew has a budget of about $2 million.

To take on a president who has refused to release his tax returns, appears oblivious to potential conflicts of interest involving his family business and basically believes he should define what the public knows about his government's activities, will require as much, if not, more resources than Judicial Watch 

Moreover, even Fitton acknowledges that, with both houses of Congress now controlled by Republicans, there will be little Congressional oversight of the Trump administration. Other than some news organizations and vigilance on selective issues by state attorneys general in New York and California, a steady stream of freedom-of-information requests and lawsuits may be the only way to hold Trump's feet to the fire.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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