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Project on Government Oversight

Stimulus Bill Accountability Provisions a Mixed Bag

2009 Volume 13-1

In This Issue

Stimulus Bill Accountability Provisions a Mixed Bag
Letter from the Executive Director
POGO Examines a Debilitated FDA
Ethics Standards Undermined Right Off the Bat
POGO 2.0
New Faces at the 2009 Congressional Oversight Training Series Kick-off
POGO Urges President and Congress to Open Government Databases to Public
President Obama Needs to Turn Attention to the NRC
We (Haven’t) Moved

Stimulus Bill Accountability Provisions a Mixed Bag

POGO was initially euphoric to see the House Appropriations Committee's press release about accountability measures in the proposed stimulus bill: in addition to announcing a new public website to track stimulus spending, the press release announced the bill would not only provide protections for state and local whistleblowers, but FINALLY even federal whistleblowers. This, however, turned out to be an embarrassing mistake (the press release was wrong: the bill didn't protect federal whistleblowers), but one the House quickly moved to correct. The amendment offered by Representatives Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Todd Platts (R-PA) to include federal whistleblower protections was accepted without objection.

The Senate, however, dropped the ball. Despite the solid bipartisan support in the House, the efforts of 260 groups encouraging the Senate to accept the House language protecting federal whistleblowers, and numerous meetings with Senate staff by POGO and some of its allies, federal whistleblower protection language was not included in the final bill. The hold up was Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). Senate leaders deferred to Senator Collins, who said she was not prepared to support legislation allowing federal whistleblowers access to jury trials after they've exhausted administrative remedies, or extending protections to national security whistleblowers without Senate hearings on those two issues. This defeat was a significant blow to federal whistleblowers, who are our front-line defense against massive fraud and waste of federal funds.

Despite this defeat, other important accountability measures were included in the stimulus bill. The website will be run by a new Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board that will be filled with Inspectors General. In addition, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was successful in offering numerous improvements to the stimulus bill language: requiring online subcontract information; including type of contract, recipient, project description, and jobs created or protected; providing additional funds for the GAO and IGs so that these watchdogs can oversee funds spent under the economic stimulus bill; and strengthening the provisions for state, local, and contractor whistleblowers.

In the end, accountability and transparency in federal spending took a giant leap forward. POGO will not only work to ensure the greatest amount of transparency in the spending of stimulus funds, but will also continue to conduct oversight through our own investigations into waste and fraud in stimulus spending. And of course, our fight to protect federal whistleblowers goes on….

 


Letter from the Executive Director

Dear Friends,

I'd like to think we were prescient when we decided last year that 2009 would be the year of transparency. It is a concept being embraced by President Obama and the public (we're still working on the Congress!) as an element necessary to rebuilding confidence in our public institutions. From the Wall Street bailout to Iraq War contracting, a central flaw that has bred distrust has been the inability of the public to see for ourselves what our government and those working for it are doing. If the stimulus is going to be successful in restarting our economy, people have to be confident that the funds are actually going to the intended program or project and not lining some lobbyist's pockets—a confidence that can be gained only if the promised transparency is delivered. POGO will work hard to do its part to shine light on those areas that need more attention.

And to show that we live by the values we promote, POGO has once again been awarded four stars—the highest rating—from Charity Navigator, America's premier independent charity evaluator. This second consecutive four-star rating is an honor shared by only 18 percent of all nonprofit organizations rated by the evaluator. What that means to you is that even as money gets tighter, you can be assured that POGO remains a solid steward of your contributions.

As our year of transparency begins, please take the opportunity to learn more about our government's operations—push back when you see something you don't like, or let people know when you see something you do. It is not only an opportunity but a responsibility to be active and informed citizens. We at POGO are happy to help you.

Warmly,

Danielle Brian
Executive Director

 


POGO Examines a Debilitated FDA

A recent report by POGO, The FDA's Deadly Gamble with the Safety of Medical Devices, portrays the Food and Drug Administration as an agency with a lack of will to vigorously pursue its mission. This is in large part because its limited resources have been overwhelmed by skyrocketing responsibilities and also because of pressure from manufacturers to give speedy approval to food, drugs, and devices. Left in the wake of the FDA's many well-publicized failures in recent years are consumers who were harmed by tainted foods and patients who died or were injured by unsafe drugs or devices.

POGO discovered a regulatory failure not previously known to the public that may put patients' lives at risk. A crucial internal document obtained by POGO reveals a decision made without public notice by senior officials of the FDA's Center on Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) to ignore the longstanding Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) regulation. That regulation sets the standards for testing medical devices in nonclinical laboratories in which devices such as newly designed pacemakers, internal defibrillators, artificial heart valves, and cardiac stents are tested for the first time before CDRH approves their use in human clinical trials.

When CDRH was enforcing the GLP regulation, its inspections of nonclinical laboratories uncovered serious deficiencies in testing that had to be corrected before the devices could be approved for clinical trials. Now that the inspections have been stopped, scientists inside CDRH fear that inadequately tested medical devices are putting patients' lives at risk. In internal CDRH documents, the scientists have deplored the officials' decision and have warned of the possible consequences. But their warnings have been to no avail.

We hope our report will intensify congressional interest in stiffening the FDA's resolve and providing the agency with adequate resources for the regulation of food, drugs, and devices.

 


Ethics Standards Undermined Right Off the Bat

On January 20, President Obama issued a landmark Executive Order, "Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel," that instituted a two-year revolving door ban on registered lobbyists entering the federal government. POGO was applauding this important step when we noticed that something was awry. Just two weeks earlier, the President had appointed William J. Lynn III—until recently the top lobbyist for Raytheon, the fourth largest Pentagon contractor—to be the Deputy Secretary of Defense. How could these two acts not be in conflict?

The White House immediately announced that Mr. Lynn was going to be receiving a waiver from its revolving door restrictions.

POGO called on the President to withdraw his nomination. "President Obama should not compromise his standards and the effectiveness of the Department of Defense by allowing a top defense-industry lobbyist to receive a waiver from these standards," said POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian. "The defense industry is in a class all its own among the industries that have had a pervasive stranglehold on public policy to advance their own financial interests."

POGO was joined by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, the Government Accountability Project, and Public Citizen in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee stating, "We fully endorse President Obama's new ethics standards regarding the revolving door. It is for that reason that we do not want those standards undermined or compromised by the confirmation of Mr. Lynn."

In the end, despite concerns raised by Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO), John McCain (R-AZ), and Charles Grassley (R-IA), the Senate confirmed Mr. Lynn's appointment as Deputy Secretary of Defense. POGO hopes not to have to oppose any future nominations on the grounds that they are violating the letter and the spirit of the President's Executive Order.

 


POGO 2.0

Many of you are probably accustomed to following POGO's work on our newly revamped website and our blog. But for all you diehard POGO fans (and we know you're out there), we've been working hard to further expand our web presence and connect to our friends in new and exciting ways.

First, POGO now has a presence on Facebook. We have a fan page, and you can become a fan by searching for "Project On Government Oversight" and clicking on the "Pages" tab in the search results. We've also launched a Cause page. By joining the POGO Cause, you can connect with hundreds of other oversight enthusiasts who are dedicated to creating a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government. Just recently, an anonymous donor was kind enough to contribute $1 for each member that joined the POGO Cause, and in a few short days, we recruited over 100 new members. To join the POGO Cause, go to http://apps.facebook.com/causes/ and search for "Project On Government Oversight." We've been delighted by the number of fans and the outpouring of support through the Cause page so far, but we're always searching for more, so don't forget to spread the word to your friends, family, and co-workers!

Second, POGO has created an account on Twitter, a popular new website where users can send and receive short updates known as "tweets." From links to our blog posts to live updates from Congressional hearings, POGO's Twitter page is the place to go if you want to stay in touch with our very latest thoughts. We hope you'll join the growing network of fans who are following POGO on Twitter at http://twitter.com/pogoblog. And let us know if you have a Twitter page, because we'd love to follow you, too.

We'll see you online!

 


New Faces at the 2009 Congressional Oversight Training Series Kick-off

New Members of the House and Senate and their staffers have arrived at the Capitol after the recent congressional elections, and POGO has made sure that oversight mentors were ready to show the new (and old) staff the ropes through the Congressional Oversight Training Series (COTS).

We kicked off the 2009 COTS on January 23 with three seminars, including one on conducting oversight through the nomination and confirmation processes. The seminars were held in the beautiful and historic Russell Caucus Room, site of the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings, a fitting location for learning how to conduct oversight.

In response to feedback we received from past recipients, POGO decided to divide training seminars into beginners and advanced courses. For example, on February 20, more than 70 staffers signed up to attend either or both "Investigations for Beginners" and "Advanced Seminar—Oversight of the Financial Sector."

Other changes include new Honorary Co-Chairs Representatives Michael Castle (R-DE) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who join other Honorary COTS Co-Chairs Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Carl Levin (D-MI), and Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ).

In addition to the seminars, POGO is publishing a COTS handbook, The Art of Congressional Oversight: A User's Guide to Doing it Right, that brings together lessons learned from past seminars, and stories and best practices garnered from interviews with more than a dozen current and former Hill investigators. The handbook will be distributed to every congressional office and made available both in print and on POGO's website. It will be updated periodically.

POGO is also working with former and current Members of Congress on the possibility of organizing an oversight training series for Representatives and Senators themselves.

 


POGO Urges President and Congress to Open Government Databases to Public

On January 29, POGO welcomed President Obama with a letter asking him to lift the veil of secrecy on two very useful new government databases—one designed to improve contracting decisions and the other to curb conflicts of interest—by making them available to the public.

The Fiscal Year 2009 National Defense Authorization Act mandated the creation of a federal contractor and grantee responsibility database similar to POGO's Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, although it will not be publicly accessible. If made publicly available, the government's database would create a more informed citizenry and further ensure that taxpayer dollars will be kept out of the hands of irresponsible contractors and grantees. (The government's database will still leave out broad categories of misconduct data, giving an incomplete picture of the responsibility and integrity of contractors and grantees. POGO's working on that issue, too.) The other database, included in the Fiscal Year 2008 National Defense Authorization Act with the leadership of Senator John McCain (R-AZ), contains the ethics opinions that specific Department of Defense acquisition officials must obtain within two years after leaving the government to work for a DoD contractor. If made publicly available, this database would shine a light on the revolving door between the Pentagon and the defense industry.

In February, we also urged Congress to make these databases publicly available in testimony given by POGO General Counsel Scott Amey before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

We have hopes that both databases will eventually be made public. Not only did President Obama make transparency a centerpiece of his campaign, but, as a Senator, he introduced the "Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act," which, had it passed, would have created an improved and public contractor and grantee responsibility database.

 


President Obama Needs to Turn Attention to the NRC

In January, Commissioners on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rejected two staff recommendations that would have improved security at nuclear power plants. The votes were both tie votes of two-two which, under NRC's rules, means rejected votes. The same two Commissioners—Chairman Dale Klein and Commissioner Kristine Svinicki—voted against both recommendations.

One recommendation would have provided the public with more information about the results of security inspections at nuclear power plants. The second was to make the NRC's security standards more realistic. POGO supported both recommendations.

These recent tie votes demonstrate the need for President Obama to appoint a Commissioner to fill the NRC's vacant fifth seat and to designate a new Chair, both of whom should have demonstrable commitments to nuclear security and transparency.

In addition to the NRC staff recommendations, there is another effort underway to strengthen plant security by improving the NRC's handling of whistleblower concerns. In February, POGO Investigator Ingrid Drake participated in a Discussion Panel on Allegation Program Enhancements organized by the NRC staff in the wake of the Commission's mishandling of the investigation into sleeping guards at the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant. Ingrid encouraged the NRC to change its whistleblower policy from referring "as many allegations as possible" to the licensee for action and response, to "as few allegations as possible." This Management Directive will come to the NRC for a vote later this year. Let's hope there is a good tie-breaker on the Commission by then!

 


We (Haven't) Moved

POGO has a new mailing address! Although the physical location of our office hasn't changed (we're still at the corner of 11th and G Streets, NW, in D.C.), the mailing address—right down to the zip code—has. It came as a bit of a surprise to us, but maybe the building owners just got tired of having to explain about the 666 in our street address.

Our new mailing address is:

Project On Government Oversight
1100 G Street, NW, Suite 900
Washington, DC 20005