Girl Talk, Washington, D.C. — In 2003, Melanie Sloan was on a one-woman mission: To root out corrupt politicians and get them booted from office. She was equipped with a modest office, a computer, and a year's worth of health insurance. But neither Sloan nor the folks who hired her to found CREW, or Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, found this mission in the least quixotic. Says Sloan, "I had been a prosecutor, and had been on the Hill for five years, and I had a big mouth. They thought that was a good combination."
It was. Sloan initiated the ethics complaint that got House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Tex.) kicked out of office, then went on to uncover the Abramoff scandal and push for charges against Representatives Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY). She's attracted funding from the Carnegie Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Wallace Global Fund. She now directs a staff of 15, including three other attorneys.
One Thing New's Kimberly Weisul spoke with Sloan about corruption, the flip side of her high-profile career, and how we can improve our electoral system.
When you started CREW, it was basically just you and a computer. Your mission was to get corruption out of Washington. Did this ever strike you as just a bit crazy?
I didn't stop to think about it so much.
I knew that the media likes legal action, so I knew an ethics complaint would push the ball forward. But there had been a truce between the two parties, and no one had filed a complaint against anyone else in 12 years.
How did you get the complaint filed? Can anyone do this?
It's different now than it was then. The problem then was that only a member of Congress could file a complaint against another member. It was like trying to get high school students to rat on their friends.
I drew up a complaint, and I was shopping and shopping and shopping it around. Finally, someone who DeLay had redistricted out of his seat, and knew he wouldn't be returning to Congress, agreed to file it against the Democratic leadership's wishes.
Why didn't the Democrats want ethics charges filed against DeLay?
Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she had a good relationship with DeLay. If you were a Democrat and had a good relationship with DeLay, that meant you were prostrate on the floor and not even moving your little pinky.
The worry [among Democrats] was that if people go after DeLay on ethics charges, then there will be people on the left who will be forced to leave Congress, too. My perspective was, then they should go. I wasn't in favor of a Tom DeLay on the left. There shouldn't be Tom DeLays.
In 2008 the Office of Congressional Ethics was founded. You have to certify that you if you lie you could be prosecuted, but otherwise anyone can make a complaint.
Were you nervous about leaving a solid job in the U.S. attorney's office to start CREW?
I was given great advice once, which was you shouldn't take one job just to get to the next job, because you don't know what you're going to end up doing. CREW seemed like a great thing to do and a great opportunity and I didn't really think through what that meant.
CREW was started by two lawyers who were fed up with Washington [Louis Mayberg, co-founder of ProFund Advisors, and Norman Eisen, now the ambassador to the Czech Republic] and they recruited me. I knew what I had to do.
But this job is rough on a career. You don't exactly make friends. I'm not exactly beloved.
What single thing could we do to get rid of corruption in government?
We would have publicly-financed campaigns. Members of Congress are constantly looking for money, and the people who are likely to give them money are people who want something.
What are the chances that we will get public financing of campaigns?
But we could find other ways to limit campaign contributions. We could say members of Congress can't accept contributions from a lobbyist.
The other problem is that even though there are a lot of good politicians, and they can perfectly well see that others are engaged in wrongdoing, they defend it. And then they wonder why Americans don't trust government. When someone is accused of ethical violations, even good politicians say, "He's my friend, I can't comment." Well, you could comment! You could say, "If he did that, that's wrong."
Do your kids understand the importance of what you're doing?
One of my children is two and a half, so she doesn't understand any of it. My 11 year-old stepson kind of understands. He thinks it's cool that I'm on TV. But a lot of what we do is file lawsuits against the Federal Election Commission or other agencies. It's not very dramatic. If we talk about it at dinner, he's bored. — KW