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Sunshine Is the Best Disinfectant | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Sunshine Is the Best Disinfectant

At a time when we need accountability more than ever in Washington, when corruption and ethical violations are sweeping our capital, we must turn to groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

Setting up shop in February 2003, CREW has already played a key role in exposing corruption at the highest federal levels with non-partisan, no-holds-barred scrutiny of our elected officials. "There are already many fine groups focusing on publishing information about campaign finance abuses, or promoting legislation to improve government," Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director told Environmental Media Services, a non-profit organization, in explaining CREW's genesis. But "there is no mainstream group that is dedicated to taking legal action directly against offending politicians and their supporters." As CREW's mission statement puts it, "the greatest danger to democracy is posed [by]...public policy unduly influenced by special interests."

Sloan recently discovered that the PR giant Fleishman-Hillard had received a $1.8 million contract from the supposedly nonpartisan Social Security Administration, (which, it's worth noting, seems to have morphed into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bush propaganda machine.) Why had the government paid nearly $2 million in taxpayer money to hire a PR firm? Sloan filed a FOIA request seeking answers.

The SSA didn't even have the good sense to offer a response. "It looks like they're hiding something," Sloan said. Last week, CREW filed a lawsuit against the SSA for failing to respond to its FOIA request.

This is the tip of the iceberg for CREW. The organization has filed FOIA requests with 22 government agencies to find out which PR firms and "journalists" the Administration has hired to flack its policies. Sloan believes "there has to be more" of the Armstrong Williams-type cases out there--and CREW intends to get the information.

CREW proved its mettle when it used the ethics process in the House to expose House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's corrupt activities (including allegedly bribing his Republican colleagues to win their votes for the GOP's sham Medicare legislation, engaging in quid pro quos with corporations seeking legislative favors and violating campaign finance laws in Texas in 2002.) Sloan discussed filing a complaint against DeLay with members of the House, but nobody bit. But then, Chris Bell, the Congressman from Texas whom DeLay had effectively redistricted out of his seat, phoned her. He agreed to take the complaint to the Ethics Committee.

A former Assistant US Attorney from 1998 to 2003, Sloan drafted the complaint as if "I was writing an indictment." After Bell and Sloan traded several drafts, the complaint was filed. It grabbed headlines by exposing DeLay's brass-knuckles tactics and highlighting the Majority Leader's illegal and undemocratic activities.

CREW is one of a growing number of watchdog organizations in the capital that is battling against increasing secrecy and metastasizing government corruption. Not long ago, CREW became part of a coalition of eight watchdogs seeking to revive the defunct ethics complaint process in the House. (While the majority of the organizations in the coalition were on the left, Judicial Watch was an exception to the rule.)

Other groups, like POGO (The Project on Government Oversight) and the Government Accountability Project, are doing similar watchdog work in Washington. And the Institute for America's Future (Disclosure: I am on IAF's Board) is running The Project for an Accountable Congress, which recently unveiled a report charging that Rep. Jim McCrery, the newly appointed chair of the Social Security Subcommittee, received over $200,000 in contributions from banking and securities interests that stand to benefit from Bush's plan to privatize Social Security.

In the meantime, OpenTheGovernment.org is sponsoring Sunshine Week to highlight the need to lift what US News and World Report has called a "shroud of secrecy" blanketing the federal government. "There's a great need to turn up the heat," said Charles Lewis, founder and former executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. (The Center itself has used FOIA requests and sued the Army and State Department over its handling of no-bid contracts.)

Lewis cited a "tectonic shift in government information" in recent years. The "obsession with secrecy by Dick Cheney and former Nixon officials" working in this Administration, combined with the Administration's agenda to privatize government and create a 'donor class of contractors,' has severely reduced public accountability in Washington. Watchdog efforts as usual are insufficient in these perilous times...The situation is out of control."

"Since 9/11," Lewis said in an important speech last month, "the country has seen a historic, regressive shift in public accountability. Open-records laws nationwide have been rolled back more than 300 times--all in the name of national security. For the first time in US history, the personal papers of past presidents now may only be released with White House approval. A Justice Department 'leak' investigation of the White House regarding an Iraq war-related news story has degenerated into a full-fledged witch-hunt against the news media and the First Amendment, with reporters facing imprisonment if they don't reveal their sources."

"It took 20 researchers, writers and editors at the Center for Public Integrity six months and 73 Freedom of Information Act requests, including successful litigation in federal court against the Army and State Department, to begin to discern who was getting the Iraq and Afghanistan contracts, and for how much," he also said. "What has happened to the principles of accessible information and transparency in the decision-making process in our democracy?"

Plenty of scandals loom. Ralph Nader's claim that President Bush's family has profited from the US invasion of Iraq should be investigated. Sloan insists that it's important to focus on the investigation already underway of the super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Over a three-year period, Abramoff allegedly received $82 million from six Indian tribes to lobby on their behalf. He is deeply tied to DeLay and other members of the Congressional Leadership. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Abramoff secured $70,000 from Indian gaming interests to finance a trip DeLay took to Britain in mid-2000.

The Washington Post has also eported that "Federal investigators are examining tens of millions of dollars in lobbying and public relations fees Abramoff obtained from the tribes. They are also looking into his dealings with members of Congress and their staffs..."

But, says Sloan, hearings conducted in the Senate have so far skipped over Abramoff's ties to members of Congress. Sounding like the enterprising watchdog that she is, Sloan vows that CREW will continue to press for a full accounting. The Abramoff case represents "a level of corruption unimaginable to most people."

If CREW and Sloan are successful, the public will soon get a better idea of the scope of this malfeasance. And we will be reminded that the maxim about stamping out corruption has merit: sunshine is the best disinfectant.

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