This week we saw a mini-controversy erupt after a left-wing Washington “ethics watchdog” group and a New York Times reporter played a tag-team game in an attempt to paint Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and his wife as corrupt over allegations that the First Lady’s charitable foundation is a front for a corporate shakedown.
The foundation, the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children, buys and installs high-tech interactive whiteboards in public-school classrooms around the state. The foundation has so far put 170 of the systems in about 50 of Louisiana’s public schools, to date focusing on schools in lower-income and minority areas. It has generated $1 million or so in corporate donations, largely from companies who are typically big players in the charity business in Louisiana and elsewhere – Dow Chemical, Marathon Oil, Acadian Ambulance and others.
The watchdog group, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, issued a release claiming that impropriety was afoot – specifically that since these companies can’t legally donate more than $5,000 to Jindal’s re-election campaign, the First Lady’s charity affords them another venue to buy influence. It identified nine companies who had combined to donate $790,000 – along with Dow, Marathon and Acadian the others were AT&T, Wal Mart, Alon USA, Promethean (the maker of the whiteboards), D&J Construction, Northrop Grumman and Blue Cross Blue Shield. CREW was able to uncover evidence that executives of those companies had in some cases donated to Jindal’s campaigns and that some of them engaged in lobbying. This information, shocking as it might be that Marathon Oil has a lobbyist, was obtained on the web through online databases such as LaTrac, the state spending database made available through an initiative Jindal undertook upon his inauguration in 2008.
It’s no secret among non-profit development people in Louisiana that the companies mentioned in CREW’s report are the “usual suspects” fundraisers approach in any development campaign. Allie Bautsch, Jindal’s chief fundraiser who volunteers as the treasurer for the foundation and whose name might be familiar to our readers from her ordeal last April when she and her boyfriend were savagely beaten by a gang of leftist-anarchists outside of an event at Brennan’s Restaurant in the French Quarter, would certainly know to approach those companies first when building a charitable fund.
Moreover the Jindal Foundation passes through 97 percent of its funding to the distribution of the whiteboards. CREW found no evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless the “watchdog” group offered this conclusion: “Gov. Jindal’s donors aren’t the first to use a family charitable foundation as a path to influencing a politician. But just because it represents business as usual doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.”
CREW’s allegations were repeated uncritically by Eric Lipton, a reporter for the New York Times, in an article appearing March 3. Lipton secured quotes from executives at Marathon and Alon praising the Jindal Foundation, but also gave voice to a woman named Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigades – whose record of activity and whose organization’s profile indicate a hard-core leftist agenda extremely antagonistic to industry.
Never once did Lipton offer perspective from principals, teachers, parents or students at schools impacted by the foundation – or any information on whether the whiteboards were worth the money spent on them, whether they work, whether teachers are able to use them to positively impact education in their classrooms or whether they serve their stated purpose of engaging schoolchildren in math and science – which incidentally are critical skills to companies engaged in oil refining, petrochemicals, telecommunications and construction, among the other industries represented by the donors to the foundation.
A bit of research into Jindal’s accusers should shed some light into their credibility.
CREW has a history replete with questionable activity as a partisan leftist organization. Last year POLITICO’s Ben Smith described it as “a vehicle for assaults on largely – but not entirely – Republican targets.” That characterization was charitable compared to a 2006 Congressional Quarterly print piece describing it as having “taken aim almost exclusively at GOP members of Congress. Since its founding in 2003, it [helped] investigate 21 lawmakers, only one of them a Democrat.”
That’s a record not unbecoming an organization which counts among its prime donors George Soros’ Open Society Institute, Democracy Alliance, Service Employees International Union, the Arca Foundation, and the Gill Foundation. CREW doesn’t even deny that it resides in the pantheon of Soros-funded hard left operations. From a piece in the Billings Gazette detailing an attack the organization leveled against former Montana Republican Senator Conrad Burns…
“We are progressive,” said Naomi Seligman, the group’s deputy director… “We do work within a larger progressive infrastructure.” Seligman suggested her group is the progressive counterweight to Judicial Watch, a group from the right that calls itself “a non-profit, public interest law firm dedicated to fighting government corruption”… “We’ve gone after a fair number of Democrats, even in this study,” Seligman said, [and Burns] “should be answering the charges, not slinging charges.”
CREW’s director, Melanie Sloan, is quite the headline grabber. Recently Sloan, a former staffer for Joe Biden (a search found no evidence of her involvement in her old boss’ plagiarism or campaign finance violations) was on the Today Show screeching about the impropriety of congressmen, most of them Republicans, sleeping in their offices rather than buying or renting houses or apartments in Washington…
But it appears that Sloan’s Puritanical standards applied to elected officials don’t extend to her own career. In late November she announced plans to join the DC lobbying firm of Democrat insider and former Clinton administration spinmeister Lanny Davis amid circumstances quite a bit more pregnant with cause for suspicion than the charity run by Louisiana’s First Lady…
But in the case of Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW), who last week announced she is 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. But the developments cast a different light on Sloan’s — and CREW’s — past work on the for-profit issue. The situation is analogous to a senator who stood up for industry interests on the energy committee retiring and promptly going to work for a firm that represents Exxon Mobil.
Here’s what happened in the CREW case: Over the summer, a high-stakes fight was unfolding in Washington over whether to issue new regulations on the lucrative for-profit schools industry (University of Phoenix is the best known), which makes its money from federal student loans. When students default on the loans — and they do at a greater rate at for-profit schools — the taxpayer foots the bill. The Department of Education wants to limit the amount of federal student aid that ends up at for-profit schools where students have the lowest loan repayment rates. Naturally, the industry is fighting this tooth and nail.
It was in this context that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee took up the for-profit schools issue in June. One of the witnesses at the hearing was a prominent critic of the industry, Wall St. investor and famed short seller Steven Eisman. A trade group for the for-profit schools industry unleashed a coordinated attack on Eisman, saying that he was trying to push down stock prices of companies on which he had a short position. On the other side, progressive defenders of Eisman who favor the new regulation argue that he is a credible analyst precisely because of “his willingness to bet that the fundamentals of those companies are as weak as his analysis suggests.”
And Eisman did disclose that he had a financial interest at the Senate hearing. Despite that fact, CREW’s Sloan wrote several letters and columns denouncing his appearance. At the same time, CREW — which typically focuses on ethical improprieties by members of Congress — ignored the financial interest of an industry executive who also testified at the hearing. CREW’s attacks on Eisman — and a column by Davis in a Capitol Hill newspaper — echoed the talking points of the for-profit schools industry in its moment of need.
Sloan eventually decided to stay at CREW; perhaps since she had brought so much heat down on Davis with the suspicious timeline of her attacks on critics of the for-profit colleges it was no longer tenable for her to change employers. But she continued carrying water for her friend Davis’ client by attacking critics of the industry, and in so doing last month brought the wrath of Slate’s Dave Weigel down on her head…
Libel law gives a lot of leeway to the claims made in op-eds. CREW’s Melanie Sloan probably didn’t libel the lefty college activism group Campus Progress, an arm of the Center for American Progress, with this Politico op-ed. But Sloan should be embarrassed by the innuendo in here. She notes that short-seller Steve Eisman, who should be familiar to anyone who read The Big Short, appeared before Congress to testify about the problems with for-profit colleges. OK, fine. Then:
Campus Progress also appears to be funding an ad campaign on MSNBC and Fox to promote these regulations. The group has, in the past, suggested scurrilous profit motive on the part of those who deviate from its own position. But it’s worth noting that major ad campaigns require major donors.
Sloan’s full of it. Cable campaigns in the D.C. area are dirt cheap, which is why there are so many of them. Campus Progress’s communications director Katie Andriulli says the think tank spent $4000 in order to get the ad running on MSNBC and Fox News at times between 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. — ie, before prime time.
I’d say Sloan damages CREW’s credibility with stuff like this, but she left it pretty well dented in 2009 when CREW launched a campaign against Dell because her computer did not get next-day service the next day after she had a problem with it.
Besides the ironic ideological inconsistency in Sloan’s murky advocacy of the for-profit college industry, the apparent mercenary nature of her recent statements seems particularly grating.
As for Lipton, he has a record of questionable objectivity as well. The Times reporter was raked over the coals last year after delivering a hit piece accusing incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner of being cozy with lobbyists. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York had the story…
The account, “GOP Leader is Tightly Bound to Lobbyists,” says Boehner has “especially deep” ties to a “tight circle” of lobbyists who give large sums of money to Boehner’s political organization and are rewarded with Boehner’s support on important legislative matters. In one key passage, the Times cites a lobbyist who says he “won” Boehner’s backing on a number of high-profile matters. This is the passage, emphasis added:
One lobbyist in the club — after lauding each staff member in Mr. Boehner’s office that he routinely calls to ask for help — ticked off the list of recent issues for which he had won the lawmaker’s backing: combating fee increases for the oil industry, fighting a proposed cap on debit card fees, protecting tax breaks for hedge fund executives and opposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel says he received a fact-checking email from Times reporter Eric Lipton Friday evening asking if Boehner did in fact oppose the cap on greenhouse gases, the tax change for hedge fund executives, the debit card fee cap, and increased fees on oil and gas companies. “Yes, that is correct,” Steel responded to Lipton, adding “I can tell you why, if you care.” Steel says he received no further notes from Lipton.
Steel says Boehner has long held those positions and does not hold them as a result of lobbying.
Hours after the email exchange, the Times story was published online, with the statement from the lobbyist that he had “won” Boehner’s backing on those matters. After Boehner’s aides complained, the paragraph was changed to read, emphasis added:
One lobbyist in the club — after lauding each staff member in Mr. Boehner’s office that he routinely calls to ask for help — ticked off the list of recent issues for which he had sought the lawmaker’s backing: combating fee increases for the oil industry, fighting a proposed cap on debit card fees, protecting tax breaks for hedge fund executives and opposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Boehner’s office said these were positions he already agreed with.
The statement that a lobbyist “won” Boehner’s backing was changed to one in which a lobbyist “sought” Boehner’s backing. That’s a rather critical change. The Times also added Boehner’s defense that these were long-held positions.
To call Boehner’s aides angry at the account would be an understatement. “They were offered the opportunity to find out if this was true, and they chose to rely instead on the word of an anonymous lobbyist,” says spokesman Michael Steel. “They intentionally refused to get the information to prove that this allegation was false.”
Last month, Lipton penned a piece which opened the latest round of media assaults on the Koch Brothers as they related to the Wisconsin union fight…
Among the thousands of demonstrators who jammed the Wisconsin State Capitol grounds this weekend was a well-financed advocate from Washington who was there to voice praise for cutting state spending by slashing union benefits and bargaining rights.
The visitor, Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, told a large group of counterprotesters who had gathered Saturday at one edge of what otherwise was a mostly union crowd that the cuts were not only necessary, but they also represented the start of a much-needed nationwide move to slash public-sector union benefits.
“We are going to bring fiscal sanity back to this great nation,” he said.
What Mr. Phillips did not mention was that his Virginia-based nonprofit group, whose budget surged to $40 million in 2010 from $7 million three years ago, was created and financed in part by the secretive billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch.
The Kochs were so secretive that on March 1 Charles Koch wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining why his company is involved in the political process. The Kochs’ support for AFP is not and has never been furtive or clandestine; in fact their contribution to conservative causes and organizations like AFP has been common knowledge throughout the ranks of the politically informed for years.
But later in the piece, Lipton had this passage…
Even before the new governor was sworn in last month, executives from the Koch-backed group had worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown, Mr. Phillips said in an interview on Monday.
Note that there were no quotation marks surrounding Phillips’ supposed statement. Phillips, of course, denied he had said such a thing. And that prompted the attention of John Hinderaker from the Powerline Blog, who wrote…
I interviewed Phillips, and he told me that Lipton had tried to get him to say something along those lines, but he didn’t say it because it wasn’t true.
Hinderaker’s piece on the Lipton-Phillips controversy is well worth a read, as it indicates the rather obvious deficit of objectivity in Lipton’s reporting. The blogger e-mailed Lipton in an effort to discern what it was that Phillips said which amounted to evidence AFP was drumming up a fight with the unions, and received a response amounting to a cornucopia of irrelevant statements by Wisconsin conservatives of various affiliations with AFP on the issue of public employee unions without evidence of those individuals having access to Gov. Scott Walker. Those statements were offered to bolster this direct quote Lipton attributed to Phillips…
“We encouraged this effort at pension reform. This is one critical budgetary way to do it,” Mr. Phillips said. “We thought it was important to do.”
Hinderaker’s conclusion after the e-mail exchange was a reasonable one…
This response is more notable for its length than its persuasiveness. It is mostly irrelevant, along “here’s the bed” lines: of course AFP has advocated publicly that Wisconsin reform its relationship with public employee unions, but that isn’t the question. The question is whether Phillips actually told Lipton that AFP had “worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown.”
We can assume that the words Lipton quoted are the best he has in his notes, the sentences that he relies on to justify his claim that AFP “worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown.” You be the judge: is “We encouraged this effort at pension reform. This is one critical budgetary way to do it. We thought it was important to do” the same as: AFP “worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown?” I don’t think so.
I think Lipton stands convicted of exactly the conduct Phillips suggested. He wanted to write a story about how an organization supported by the Koch brothers was secretly fomenting a “showdown” with Wisconsin’s unions. Phillips wouldn’t tell him that because it wasn’t true, but Lipton wrote the story that way anyway, because without it he had nothing newsworthy.
Eric Lipton and the New York Times owe Tim Phillips, Americans For Prosperity and Charles and David Koch an apology, and they owe their readers a correction.
But Lipton’s Koch Brothers/AFP piece also contained a partisan accusation just like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade pile-on in the Jindal Foundation article. For the Wisconsin story he dug out this quote…
To Bob Edgar, a former House Democrat who is now president of Common Cause, a liberal group that has been critical of what it sees as the rising influence of corporate interests in American politics, the Koch brothers are using their money to create a façade of grass-roots support for their favorite causes.
“This is a dangerous moment in American history,” Mr. Edgar said. “It is not that these folks don’t have a right to participate in politics. But they are moving democracy into the control of more wealthy corporate hands.”
Common Cause is more than just “a liberal group.” Ira Stoll at the Future Of Capitalism blog accurately characterized the backers of a group “critical of what it sees as the rising influence of corporate interests in American politics”…
This is really something. Who does the New York Times think funds Common Cause? Non-wealthy, non-corporate interests? Talk about a facade of grass-roots support. Common Cause’s 2008 annual report — the most recent one posted on the Common Cause Web site, which is pretty pathetic for a group supposedly in favor of transparency — lists the Ford Foundation, the GE Foundation,and the Carnegie Corporation of New York as among its backers.
The 2008 Common Cause annual report lists five donors in the top giving bracket of between $100,000 and $999,000. They include:
Donna A. Curling, whose husband’s company, ChoicePoint, was acquired in 2008 for $4.1 billion.
Mr. and Mrs. John C. Haas, whose family controls charitable and income-producing trusts (the Philadelphia chemical company Rohm & Haas was acquired by Dow Chemical) reportedly worth worth a total of more than $4 billion.
Markos Kounalakis, whose wife, a real estate developer, has enough money to endow a professorship at Stanford.
Chang K. Park, whose company supplies 80% of the remote controls for Time Warner Cable.
What Common Cause is is a bunch of millionaires and billionaires trying to prevent other millionaires and billionaires from participating in the political process the same way they do. In other words, they are hypocrites. The Times could write a story headlined Billionaires’ Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Dispute and have the article be about not the Koch brothers but about the funders of Common Cause. But the left-wing interest groups rarely get that kind of treatment in the Times, where these left-wing interest groups are more commonly quoted approvingly as expert sources rather than scrutinized skeptically or suspiciously as targets.
I talked to a pair of Lipton’s recent interview subjects on Friday, and I was told by both that he comes on light as a feather. Very soft-spoken, empathetic and conciliatory. But both said their statements to him were grossly mischaracterized in print to fit the narrative he was looking for.
Perhaps that’s not a surprise. It’s clear in the case of both Sloan and Lipton that Supriya Jindal’s charitable foundation was found guilty of all charges before the trial even began. It’s also clear the CREW report and the NYT piece are partisan attacks by veteran warriors following a typical pattern.
As Jindal told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, whose own story on the CREW/Times attack was similarly void of any discussion of the efficacy of Supriya Jindal’s efforts to improve education in Louisiana public school classrooms (not a single quote from a teacher, principal, parent or student in the T-P either), maybe the attention to the foundation the controversy has generated will help it add to its donor rolls. But it seems apparent that Sloan and Lipton have achieved their aim to sully the Jindals’ integrity despite a lack of any actual evidence of any wrongdoing.
But the duo is owed some degree of gratitude, because thanks to their smear of the Jindals we’re treated to the fascinating, if morbid spectacle of state Democrat Party chairman Buddy Leach, whose career highlights include allegations of illegal vote-buying as a congressional candidate and more recently laundering campaign contributions from wealthy trial lawyer Calvin Fayard to his daughter Caroline Fayard’s failed campaign for Lieutenant Governor last year, endeavoring to lecture the governor on ethics.
“We all know corporations are limited on how much they can contribute to any candidate,” Leach said. “For them to make the sizable contributions and then have business before state regulatory agencies is the questionable part. This follows the fact that the governor was elected as a reformer and went around the country talking about the gold plate standard of ethics.”
You just can’t make this stuff up. Unless you’re Melanie Sloan or Eric Lipton; they seem to be the experts.