Linda Burstyn

The Most Feared Woman on Capitol Hill

A longer version of this article appears in Ms. Magazine.

If you paid close attention to the media lately, you would have heard many of the politicians who've been drowning in scandal pinning the blame for their problems on one woman -- as if the mere mention of her name would somehow float them to safety.

Charged with taking payoffs from Jack Abramoff's clients? Blame Melanie Sloan. Under FBI investigation for steering government business to your daughter? Blame Melanie Sloan. Indicted for accepting bribes of millions of dollars, antique furniture, cars, boats and houses? Blame Melanie Sloan.

"It's ridiculous," says 41-year-old Melanie Sloan from her modest office in Washington, D.C. "I do not control the Justice Department. If you believe the right-wing media, I'm all-powerful."

While it's true that she doesn't control the FBI, Sloan's ability to influence the mood, and even the membership, of Congress is beyond dispute. If it weren't for her and the organization she directs -- Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) -- Tom DeLay (R-Texas) might never have faced the ethics charges as Majority Leader in the House of Representatives that began his rapid decent from the heights of political power. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) might still be enjoying his meals at the Capitol dining room instead of in a prison mess hall. Various other members of Congress might not be pacing the halls at night, worried about indictments yet to come. And of course, the Democrats might still be the minority party in the House and the Senate.

"Corruption was a top issue in the midterm elections, and CREW was critical to the Democrats' success," says longtime Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "The fact that they were bipartisan and had created this dirty-dozen list of corrupt politicians really helped people process that these politicians were acting well outside the norm."

CREW was started by Sloan in 2003 to undertake a job few seemed to be doing in Washington: using the legal system and media to expose, deter and litigate legal and ethical wrongdoing by members of Congress. In the past three years the nonprofit group has pursued legal actions against 26 members of Congress -- including a couple of Democrats -- resulting in four resignations (all Republicans). Eleven of those members who have been pursued by CREW are now under federal investigation and eight whom CREW investigated lost their seats in the midterm elections.

Ironically, it was the success of the ultraconservative Judicial Watch -- famous for its dogged pursuit of President Clinton over his alleged sexual harassment of Paula Jones -- that provided the impetus for CREW's beginning. A litigator Sloan knew, Norman Eisen, was seeking someone to start a group that would provide a balance to such right-wing legal watchdogs.

"We were looking for somebody smart enough and tough enough to single-handedly take on that mission," says Eisen. "And Melanie was the one." Judicial Watch was to be her model, with a slight, though significant, difference: She would focus on wrongdoing in the public sphere, rather than in the private lives of politicians.

Sloan, formerly an assistant U.S. attorney and a counsel for congressional committees, began the job sitting alone in a small office with the promise of one year's salary, a computer, a telephone and little more. As her first act, she aimed her legal slingshot at the most powerful politician in Washington, D.C.: Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. "I knew that getting rid of DeLay would improve the entire culture of the city," says Sloan.

In 2003, DeLay's stranglehold on Congress was so strong that it seemed he had hijacked the entire democratic process. "It was basically a pay-to-play system," says Sloan. "DeLay realized the way to consolidate power was to get more money; that's how you win elections. So he made sure the Republicans had a lot more money by telling those with business in Washington that not only did they have to cough up money to Republicans but they would be penalized if they gave money to Democrats."

Sloan filed complaints with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission asking for audits of DeLay's political action committee, ARMPAC -- resulting in the commission levying one of its largest fines ($115,000) and forcing ARMPAC to close its doors. CREW also brought to light the way DeLay twisted arms on the floor of the House, notably in a case in which DeLay purportedly offered a member of Congress financial support for his son's Congressional campaign in exchange for a vote on the Republican-backed Medicare bill.

Finally, CREW drafted an ethics complaint against DeLay and managed to find a Democratic Congress member who would file it. The outcome: DeLay was admonished by the ethics committee on two counts.

The steady drumbeat of scandal surrounding DeLay played no small part in the mounting public disgust against incumbent Republicans that culminated in midterm election losses. But that's not enough for Sloan. "I'll be done with Tom DeLay when he's in jail," she says. "I don't know if it's going to happen in Texas [where he has been indicted for conspiring to violate campaign finance laws] or not, but I think he's going to be indicted here [D.C.] in the [Jack] Abramoff scandal. He could be facing 10 years."

Today, Sloan's not alone any more: CREW has a staff of 13, six of them attorneys. And now that the Democrats are in control of the House and the Senate, Sloan is looking closely at how well that party's leaders keep their promise of routing out corruption. If the Democrats should sink into that inviting cesspool of political corruption, she promises that CREW will be there, calling for investigations.

"Corrupt politicians don't have a place in Congress," she says. "If they want to get rich, they need to find another job. The pay is public. People know what they're going to make when they get in that job, and if they don't like it they shouldn't take it. It's not a place to go to get rich or to live like you're rich and I think members of Congress have forgotten that."

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