The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a Washington-based nonprofit that pushes for “good government reforms,” will fight a May 30 subpoena from the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) seeking the results of its research into mismanagement at the department. “We never have” complied with such a subpoena, says POGO communications director Joe Newman, who says the group has now dealt with seven demands from federal agencies for records since the early 1990s. “And we have no plans to do that.”
In a June 9 letter to the VA IG, POGO makes its intentions clear, not to mention the legal rationale for keeping its research to itself: “The administrative subpoena served by the IG on POGO would infringe on POGO’s freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of association rights as they relate to all whistleblowers and sources who come to POGO alleging improper administration of federal policies, programs, contracts, or spending,” reads the letter from POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian and General Counsel Scott H. Amey.
POGO isn’t a bad place to go looking for VA tips and gossip. On May 15, the group, along with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), launched the Web site VAOversight.org to round up tips on “fraud, mismanagement and abuse” at the agency. The site goes to great lengths to encourage anonymous tipsters, and even features advice for them on how to protect themselves: “To maximize your security and anonymity, you should consider using the Tor Browser Bundle for all of your electronic correspondence with POGO. You should never use a government or contractor phone, fax, or computer to contact POGO. The information you submit from this page will be sent to POGO in an encrypted message.”
Since its debut, VAOversight.org has pulled in tips and complaints from about 700 people, with about three-quarters of the traffic relating to medical complaints from veterans; the rest is information from current or former VA employees, says Newman.
The VA’s IG wants that stuff and then some, judging from the sweep of its subpoena. It’s looking for:
All records that POGO has received from current or former employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and other individuals or entities relating in any way to wait-times, access to care, and/or patient scheduling issues at the Phoenix, Arizona VA Healthcare System and any other VA medical facility.
According to Newman, a staffer at the VA IG office called POGO on May 30 asking for the records and got a simple no. An hour later, Newman reports, there was someone at the door carrying the subpoena.
Though Newman points out that POGO does advocacy work on some issues, the group is in large part an investigative organization. It got its start outing the military for a “$7,600 coffee maker and a $436 hammer” and later turned its attention to the rest of the government. In a note on methodology on its website, POGO says of its work: “we protect the identity of our insider partners the way that reporters in the mainstream media do, ensuring that they are not punished for their patriotism.” The POGO staffers working on the VA investigation, says Newman, are David S. Hilzenrath, formerly of the Washington Post, and Adam Zagorin, formerly of Time magazine.
In its response to the VA IG, POGO not only cites the importance of keeping its sources confidential; it also suggests that the subpoena is an overreach in the first place. “The IG’s office has provided no basis to suggest that the information possessed by POGO as a result of its investigation of the VA is not already available to the IG, including through the VA IG ‘hotline.’ Accordingly, the administrative subpoena is little more than an invasive fishing expedition.”
The Erik Wemple Blog has reached out to CNN, a news outlet that recently completed some celebrated investigations of the VA, to determine whether it, too, has received a subpoena from the VA IG. No response just yet.
In any case, Newman says that perhaps the VA IG “may see us as an easier target” than a CNN or an Arizona Republic. “They might think that they’d have an easier time in court against us. We feel our case is strong,” says Newman.