The Taming of the CREW

Liberal Watchdog subpoenaed for donor info in response to lawsuit

March 25, 2013

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a liberal watchdog group, is fighting a subpoena for its donor information and other internal documents by arguing that the request violates its First Amendment rights.

The subpoena was filed by pharmaceutical company Sanofi as part of its defense against an antitrust lawsuit. Sanofi is being sued for allegedly trying to monopolize the market with its meningococcal vaccine.

CREW is not a plaintiff in the antitrust suit. But Sanofi claims the organization has acted as an "undisclosed spokesperson" in a "multifaceted antitrust attack" against the company that would benefit one of the liberal watchdog group’s early benefactors.

Sanofi has subpoenaed internal emails, documents, and donor information from CREW, which it says could prove the lawsuit "was not an attempt to seek redress for an actual injury … but was the product of the scheme concocted by [competing pharmaceutical company] Novartis and plaintiffs’ counsel to inflict competitive injury on Sanofi and extract attorneys’ fees for plaintiffs’ counsel."

The subpoena requests a wide range of documents, including those  "sufficient to show any monetary contributions since Jan. 1, 2005 made to CREW by any relevant person."

Daniel Berger, a major Democratic donor who served on CREW’s board for nearly a decade, is managing shareholder at the law firm representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

According to CREW, a group that fights for transparency in politics, the subpoena violates its First Amendment rights.

"The threat here is from Sanofi’s efforts to compel discovery that ‘would have a potential ‘for chilling the free exercise of political speech and association guarded by the First Amendment,’" CREW wrote in its response to the subpoena. "This potential arises from the compelled disclosure of "internal communications and communications among [CREW and] various groups, id., as well as CREW’s ‘staff … contributors, and others who affiliate with it."

"The subpoena seeks documents specifically reflecting CREW’s communications with funders, the press, federal regulators … as well as CREW’s efforts to generate media interest in its letter … discovery directed expressly at CREW’s exercise of its First Amendment activities," CREW wrote.

CREW has regularly criticized conservative outside groups for declining to disclose donor information while refusing to disclose the identities of its donors.

Sanofi’s subpoena is under consideration by a federal appeals court. The company claims it was the target of a negative public relations campaign coordinated by CREW, the plaintiff’s attorneys, a competing pharmaceutical company, and a consumer advocacy organization.

"The subpoena was merely the next logical step in the standard legal process of discovery as we defend ourselves in the matter of Castro, M.D., P.A. v. Sanofi Pasteur Inc.," said Sanofi in a statement. "Since this matter is currently before the Court on appeal, we cannot provide further details."

CREW and Berger did not respond to requests for comment.