Jonathan Chait

Why Do Ethics Stories Still Quote CREW's Melanie Sloan?

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[Guest post by James Downie]

Kudos to the New York Times for a well-done investigation, published yesterday, on how companies operating in Louisiana are donating large amounts of money to Bobby Jindal's wife’s charity. Of course, that does not immediately prove something unethical has actually taken place, but, well, I’ll let a quote from the Times piece sum it up:

“The motives might be good,” said Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics [in Washington], which has also examined public records detailing the operations of Mrs. Jindal’s charity. “But the donations that come in to charities like this are almost always from folks who want something from a politician. It is a troubling phenomenon."

Melanie Sloan is exactly right: Even if your motives are well-intentioned, if the surrounding relationships look unethical, then people should be troubled. It reminds me of another news item from last November:

When the executive director of a prominent Washington ethics watchdog group goes to work for a well-known corporate lobbyist, it's bound to raise a few eyebrows.

But in the case of Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW), who last week announced she is [leaving CREW and] joining the new firm of lobbyist Lanny Davis, there's another layer of intrigue: Sloan came under fire over the summer for appearing to go to bat for the for-profit schools industry, which is currently a paid lobbying client of Davis. At the time, Sloan and CREW explicitly cited a column Davis wrote defending the for-profit industry. Now, Sloan is going to work for Davis.

In interviews with Salon, Sloan and Davis both said that the concatenation of events is a pure coincidence…“It was a coincidence" that CREW cited Davis' column in July, Sloan says. "This is not any different than anything else CREW does where people automatically ascribe a motive to us -- it's not true." She argues that there is disturbing evidence that short sellers are pushing the new regulations, adding that "I'm really comfortable with where we are on this."

Sloan eventually reversed course and announced she would stay at CREW, but she has continued to lash out at groups advocating against for-profit colleges. And since the transparency group does not release its donor list, we still do not know exactly why Sloan has decided to make for-profit colleges a crusade. Given that the Times story was otherwise well-reported, it’s a shame that the quoted ethics source has undermined herself so thoroughly, and reporters will (or at least should) think twice in the future before citing Sloan.

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