Established in 2001, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) describes itself as a “nonpartisan” public interest group that litigates and brings ethics charges against “government officials who sacrifice the common good to special interests” and “betray the public trust.”
CREW’s ultimate purpose is to use “the rule of law to bring about constructive social change” in a manner the organization likens to the 1960s civil rights movement. The “social change” sought by CREW is the transformation of America into a nation that more fully embraces leftist values and policies. Toward this end, CREW strives to discredit conservatives and Republicans it deems vulnerable to attack, with the objective of decreasing their numbers in political offices nationwide. Thus the overwhelming majority of the public officials targeted by CREW are Republicans. In September 2006, the organization issued a 241-page report — titled “Beyond [Tom] Delay: The 20 Most Corrupt Members of Congress” — which named 17 Republicans and 3 Democrats. The report further listed 5 “Dishonorable Mentions” — 4 Republicans and 1 Democrat. A similar disproportion has marked the political contributions made by CREW’s Board members and staffers in recent years. Between 1995 and 2004, those individuals contributed $125,245 to Democrats and $16,013 to Republicans.
Citing the existence of conservative legal advocacy groups like Judicial Watch, the Rutherford Institute, and the National Legal and Policy Center, CREW says: “Conservative groups such as these have no real parallel in the progressive arena.” While acknowledging that there are numerous leftist groups that focus on research and legislation, CREW states that such organizations “do not use litigation to target outrageous conduct.” This is the niche that CREW has carved out for itself.
CREW was founded by Democrat activists Norm Eisen (an attorney) and Louis Mayberg (a prominent Democrat donor, and co-founder of the Maryland-based mutual fund management firm ProFund Advisors LLC). CREW’s “Form 990” IRS filing for 2001 lists Mayberg as one of its three Founding Directors; the other two are Daniel Berger (a high-profile Democrat donor who in 2004 made a $100,000 contribution to America Coming Together) and Mark Penn (a fellow at the New Politics Institute, and a top Democrat strategist and pollster who not only played a key role in Bill Clinton‘s 1996 presidential campaign, but also served as head of “message and strategy” for Hillary Clinton‘s 2000 Senate campaign).
CREW has received financial backing from the Arca Foundation, the David Geffen Foundation, Democracy Alliance, the Mayberg Family Charitable Foundation, the George Soros‘s Open Society Institute, the Sheller Family Foundation, the Streisand Foundation, the Tides Foundation, the Wallace Global Fund, and the Woodbury Fund — all institutions distinguished by their support for far-left causes.
CREW’s Executive Director is Melanie Sloan, a longtime Democrat operative who previously served as Nominations Counsel for Joe Biden’s Senate Judiciary Committee (1993); Counsel for the Crime Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee for Charles Schumer (1994); Minority Counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee under John Conyers (1995-1998); and Assistant U.S. District Attorney for the District of Columbia (1998-2003).
Other CREW officials have similarly deep ties to the political Left. For example, Deputy Director and Communications Director Naomi Seligman Steiner was formerly the Communications Director of Media Matters for America. CREW Special Projects Associate Lida Masoudpour was once a staffer at Media Matters and served as an intern in the office of Senator Hillary Clinton. CREW Senior Counsel Tim Mooney previously served as Senior Counsel at Alliance for Justice (AFJ). CREW Counsel Dan Roth was formerly the Dorot Judicial Selection Fellow at AFJ. CREW Research Associate Robin Powers is a former Program Associate of AFJ who interned with Vital Voices Global Partnership and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. CREW Counsel Kimberly Perkins once worked as the Assistant General Counsel for the National Office of the NAACP, where she led the “Voting Rights & Redistricting Project” and “Election Protection” efforts. CREW Executive Assistant Melissa Cuerdon, who previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry, served internships at the Sierra Club and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
On March 10, 2004, The Hill (a nonpartisan weekly newspaper covering Congress and its members) reported, “House Democratic leaders are honing an election strategy to taint the entire Republican caucus by demonizing Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX).” Two weeks later, CREW sent a letter to every House member in an effort to find someone willing to file ethics allegations against DeLay. CREW found such a volunteer in then-Texas Congressman Chris Bell, who had recently been defeated in the Democratic primary and thus stood no hope of being reelected in November. In June 2004, Melanie Sloan and CREW helped Bell file against Delay an ethics complaint with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. CREW’s participation in this filing was in violation of House rules, which since 1997 had forbidden non-members from filing ethics complaints. The rules permit members to transmit information from an outsider — provided that the member: (a) discloses that the information was derived from an outside source, and (b) certifies his or her confidence that the information was submitted in good faith. Bell’s complaint, which was drafted by Ms. Sloan, did not disclose CREW’s involvement. The Committee eventually found Bell’s ethics accusations against DeLay “unsubstantiated.”
CREW pursued further investigations of DeLay, and in May 2005 those efforts paid dividends when Texas State District Judge Joseph Hart ruled that the treasurer of Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (TRMPAC), a PAC founded by DeLay, had violated Texas campaign laws by failing to report some $600,000 in campaign contributions. “The House Ethics Committee has run out of excuses for avoiding an investigation into Rep. DeLay’s involvement with TRMPAC,” said Melanie Sloan. That same month, Sloan told the Wall Street Journal: “Since I started [with CREW], “the main thing I wanted to do was to go after [Texas Republican and then-Majority Leader] Tom DeLay. DeLay is my top target.”
CREW was joined in its campaign against DeLay by numerous Soros-funded organizations, all posing as “non-partisan” watchdogs — among them Common Cause, Democracy 21, Public Citizen, Public Campaign, and the Campaign Legal Center.
In September 2005, a federal grand jury charged that DeLay and two conspirators had illegally earmarked corporate contributions to designated candidates for the Texas legislature. Four months later, under pressure from fellow Republicans, DeLay announced that he would not seek reelection. Moreover, two of DeLay’s former aides were convicted in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, which involved illegal gifts and campaign contributions to members of Congress in return for support of legislation favorable to the donors.
Another scandal that CREW helped make public involved Florida House Republican Mark Foley, who in late September 2006 resigned from office after it was revealed that he had sent sexually suggestive emails to a teenage boy who was a former congressional page. On October 2, CREW stated at a press conference that it had obtained some of Foley’s incriminating email correspondences on July 21 — more than two months before ABC News broke the story on September 28. CREW claimed that it had sought to interest FBI investigators in the Foley emails, but to no avail. “Since the FBI has known about Rep. Foley’s emails since July, the question arises: Did the administration help to cover up Rep. Foley’s conduct and leave a potential sexual predator on the loose?” asked Melanie Sloan. “The American public deserves to know not just how and why members of Congress failed to take action to protect the youngsters entrusted to the care of the House of Representatives, but also why the FBI — an agency charged with protecting the public — failed to safeguard other youngsters from a potential sexual predator.”
The FBI replied that the emails provided by CREW had been heavily redacted, and that the group refused to provide unedited versions to the FBI. One law-enforcement official — speaking on condition of anonymity — said he believed that CREW, which refused to tell the FBI how the emails were obtained, may have gotten hold of the correspondences as early as April 2006.
On August 15, 2006, CREW took on the legal case of Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, who jointly filed a federal civil lawsuit against U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, his former Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, top Presidential advisor Karl Rove, and other then-current and former administration officials. In an episode that came to be popularly known as “Plamegate,” the Wilsons charged that the defendants had intentionally exposed Mrs. Wilson’s classified CIA status to reporters in order to punish her husband for having publicly disputed statements made by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address justifying the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
On January 24, 2017 — President Donald Trump’s first full Monday in office — CREW took the lead in filing (in the Southern District of New York) a lawsuit alleging that Trump’s decision to allow his various business operations and hotels to accept payments from foreign governments violated the U.S. Constitution. CREW chairman Norman Eisen — who had “bundled” donations that totaled between $200,000 and $500,000 from other contributors for Barack Obama in 2008, for which he was rewarded with an appointment as special advisor to President Obama for “ethics” was one of the leading lawyers on the anti-Trump case.
The Constitutional provision upon which the plaintiffs based their case is known as the Foreign Emoluments Clause (Article I, Section 9, Clause 8), which states: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” The plaintiffs alleged that President Trump was violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause through his continuing ownership interests in Trump hotels, buildings and other real estate ventures in which foreign governments, or businesses controlled by foreign governments, were customers, tenants, lenders or business partners. Asserting that Trump was illegally receiving monetary benefits from foreign states or their controlled entities without congressional consent, the lawsuit sought a court order compelling the President to cease receiving such benefits.
“The plaintiffs face an uphill battle. To begin with, their lawsuit may be dismissed out of hand because they lack standing to bring the suit in the first place. Standing is a legal threshold plaintiffs must meet for the court to hear their case, requiring plaintiffs to demonstrate they have suffered a direct and concrete injury as a result of the actions they are complaining about. According to the New York Times, the ACLU “hopes to find a hotel or bed-and-breakfast that might compete against a Trump hotel as a party with standing to sue.” Presumably such competitors would claim they have suffered some sort of economic injury from foreign government favoritism shown towards Trump hotels, motivated by a desire to please Mr. Trump in his presidential capacity. The so-called “competitor standing” theory may succeed in getting a lawsuit with the right plaintiffs past the courthouse door, but that is as far as they should get.
“The next hurdle the plaintiffs must overcome is whether the Foreign Emoluments Clause even applies to the president of the United States and, if so, whether Congress has already given blanket consent to all presidents in terms of their business dealings, including with foreign governments and their controlled entities, when it exempted presidents and vice presidents from its conflicts of interest laws.
“The Foreign Emoluments Clause refers to ‘Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust,’ which arguably at the time was not intended to refer to elected officials in the legislative or executive branches. The same phrase ‘holding any Office” is used earlier in Article I, Section 6, where it is clear that such phrase refers only to appointees. It is only when the Constitution uses the term ‘Emolument’ a second time, in the compensation clause of Article II, Section 1, that we see a specific reference to ‘the President.’ This textural interpretation is bolstered by the fact that when Alexander Hamilton was directed by the Senate to provide a list of persons holding office under the United States and their salaries, his response included only appointed officers, not any elected persons.
“Thus, both the text, and the actions of one of the Founding Fathers involved in the drafting, indicate that the plaintiffs’ suit against President Trump should be dismissed because the constitutional provision they are suing under does not apply to him.
“Consider also the purpose of the Foreign Emoluments Clause. It is in essence intended to protect against conflicts of interest if people working in the U.S. government were to receive personal economic benefits from foreign governments or their controlled entities. Such benefits could conceivably be in the form of gifts or in the form of compensation for services, especially if such compensation is beyond what would be expected in a standard commercial arms-length business transaction. However, no court has had the occasion to interpret exactly what the term ’emolument’ means as used in the Foreign Emoluments Clause, much less how it would apply to a sitting president. President Trump’s lawyers have argued that the term should apply only to gifts from foreign governments or a special benefit.
“‘No one would have thought when the Constitution was written that paying your hotel bill was an emolument,’ Sheri A. Dillon, a partner at Morgan Lewis who drafted the president’s trust documents, said at a news conference earlier this month [January 2017]. She said that as an extra precaution, all profits from overnight stays by foreign government employees in Trump hotels would be paid to the U.S. Treasury.
“A law professor examining legal precedents in other contexts involving emoluments concluded that the term refers to payments related to the office the government worker holds, not simply payments for unrelated goods or services sold at fair market value.
“Whatever ’emoluments’ are determined to encompass, President Trump’s lawyers claimed to have set up a structure, with outside compliance oversight, to isolate him from his businesses. If President Trump is not taking compensation himself in any form from any of the Trump businesses that still may be profiting from their ongoing relationships with foreign governments or their controlled entities, and is not participating in the running of such businesses, then what exactly is there left for the court to do?
“It is also difficult to imagine a court interjecting itself into a matter that Congress has more direct authority under the Constitution to oversee. After all, it is Congress that is given the consent power under the Foreign Emoluments Clause in dealing with potential conflicts of interest involving foreign states. And Congress has arguably given its broad consent to compensation arrangements involving potential conflicts of interest already, when it exempted the president and vice president, along with members of Congress and federal judges, from its own statutory conflicts of interest prohibitions.
“The one circumstance in which the president and vice president must receive specific consent from Congress is their acceptance of ‘gifts’ from foreign governments. A ‘gift’ is defined in the relevant statute as ‘a tangible or intangible present (other than a decoration) tendered by, or received from, a foreign government.’ There are well established procedures that presidents have followed, even before the passage of this statute, to disclose any foreign gifts for the purposes of obtaining congressional consent.”