Watchdog: Accountability

Danielle Brian's POGO is constantly poking, prodding, exposing government waste and fraud

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Watchdog,Federal Budget,Foreign Aid,Fast and Furious,Corruption,Defense Spending,Pentagon,Military Budget,Waste and Fraud,Whistleblowers,Accountability

Danielle Brian says she arrived in the nation's capital as a naive South Florida girl in 1983, and still considers herself a hopeful skeptic, and not yet a cynic, despite everything she's seen and heard in the three decades since.

"I wanted to fix government," said Brian, who became executive director of the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight in 1993, following prior stints as an intern and a research assistant for POGO founder Dina Rasor.

Rasor founded POGO in 1981 as the Project on Military Procurement just as the military budget began a significant expansion under President Ronald Reagan.

Brian said Pentagon insiders established the organization to be a voice for whistleblowers so they would not have to risk their careers while exposing waste and fraud in defense spending.

The whistleblowers were mainly concerned about wasteful spending and new weapons systems and other equipment that did not work, thus potentially endangering members of the U.S. military.

By 1990, Rasor's group had been joined by others interested in watchdogging military procurement, including members of Congress, journalists and other nonprofit groups, so POGO broadened its scope, Brian said.

When she returned to the group in 1993 as executive director, however, POGO was on the ropes, with only one employee besides Brian.

But just when things looked bleakest, a whistleblower slipped POGO a draft of an Energy Department inspector general's report that found 40 percent of the government's superconducting super collider project had been wasted on office plants, parties and other frivolities.

When POGO leaked the draft report to the media, Congress shut down the program, and Brian was off and running with a reinvigorated vision for the group.

What happened next snuffed out whatever of Brian's naivete remained, she said.

Then-Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O'Leary sent IG office agents to POGO's office. "They came banging on our then-tiny offices with their badges, saying, 'We demand to know your sources,'" Brian said.

Ironically, O'Leary had been lionized in the media after she released Cold War documents on federal radiation tests on humans.

"It is easy to be open about something that happened five presidents ago, but not when it comes to your own warts," Brian said.

The episode drove home to Brian that sooner or later politicians in both major political parties always disappoint activists seeking to make the government work more efficiently and honestly

Even so, Brian noted that POGO has given awards to both President Obama and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa.

Of Issa, Brian praised his instincts and follow-through, as well as his work on the Fast and Furious scandal. Brian said Attorney General Eric Holder was wrong to claim executive privilege to withhold documents from Issa.

But Brian believes that what she views as Issa's love of political theater sometimes gets the best of him, with a result that he misses opportunities to dig deeper for permanent reforms in favor of creating an immediate media show.

Brian, who spent several years as a congressional staffer before deciding that was not for her, never calls elected officials heroes, and she is agnostic about their motives.

"I just want to know if what I have is real or not," she said.

But the tips keeping coming to POGO. An anonymous source recently left an envelope with very important documents at POGO's office door, she said.

Brian has also been given handwritten notes at parties, handoffs from a car, thumb drives and emails blind-copied to her.

"One of the great tricks for insiders, if it is a very valuable document, to send it to everyone in the building, so when it gets out, it is not as obvious where it came from," she said.

In the wake of revelations about government surveillance through the National Security Agency and elsewhere in the intelligence agencies, Brian said sources are now preferring to meet face-to-face, a refreshing change.

There have been many changes for POGO in the years since Brian assumed leadership. It now employs 29 full-time staffers, including lawyers, journalists, investigators and researchers. The group received more than $1.8 million in contributions in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available.

As for the future, Brian said she wants to dig into the horrific mishandling of veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Why is it so broken?" she asked. "I am being assured it is not a lack of resources."

Neil McCabe is a Washington, D.C.,-based journalist.

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