Five Years, Five Questions: An Interview with POGO Investigator Mandy Smithberger

Did you just hear a sigh of relief coming from the direction of defense contractors or oil corporations? If so, it might be because yesterday marked the last day at the office (at least for the time being) for Mandy Smithberger, our national security / oil royalties investigator extraordinaire. POGO, of course, will miss her dearly (though who knows—we may be able to lure her back soon). Mandy started out as an intern in 2006 and she’s heading off to do some foreign policy work full-time. The Watercooler caught up with her to get her perspective on POGO and the time she spent here.

Watercooler: You’ve been at POGO since 2006. How has the organization changed since that time?

Mandy Smithberger: We’ve obviously grown a lot. I think we’ve also become better at our investigations. When I first interviewed, Keith and Danni asked me a question about how I would feel if I spent days or weeks looking into something, only to find out there really wasn’t any “there” there—I feel like that doesn’t happen as much anymore, but that may be because Jake’s such a rockstar with whistleblower intake!

Social media has also exploded since I first started, and I think that’s been really exciting because of the new opportunities to discover and connect with the good government underground.

Watercooler: What has been your favorite project that you worked on over the course of your half-decade-tenure?

MS: It’s tough, but I think there’s something special and exciting about your first big investigation, which for me was looking at multi-year procurement issues and conflicts of interest with the F-22. I was only an intern, but it was the first time I found the needle in the haystack (the head of the Institute of Defense Analyses, charged with providing “independent” analysis on the multi-year procurement decision, heading up a subcontractor for the F-22 program) and digging into procurement law minutiae (specifically cost savings requirements—Senator McCain’s reform to that requirement is still powerful today and greatly informed our opposition of multi-year procurement for the DDG-51 in the most recent Defense Authorization bills). It also turned me on to looking at semi-governmental institutions and the opportunities and challenges they present.

Watercooler: Where would you like to see POGO be in another five years?

MS: For one, I hope we’ll have won the fight for protections for federal whistleblowers!

I’m also looking forward to seeing how we further the debates about contracting and outsourcing services and war. I hope that we build a narrative that allows for both the government and businesses to be more publicly minded–both have failed taxpayers and consumers.

As much as I love the muckraking, my heart is really in achieving our policy goals. In my own investigation areas, I’m hoping the Interior department can get its auditing shop in order to get taxpayers their fair share, that we can get our major weapons programs on track, and that we can give auditors across the government the independence they need to succeed and really find savings for taxpayers.

And as great as the investigations were, I’d like for us to be known for more than toilet seats and vodka butt shots.

Watercooler: You’ve been prolific on POGO’s blog. Give us your top five favorite posts you’ve authored.

MS:

  1. Recently I loved writing this one.
  2. A bunch of the blogging on the Deepwater Horizon spill, I think, really looked at a different side of the issues than what the mainstream press was covering, but maybe the best was pointing out the lunacy of an oversight-oriented agency giving awards to industry.
  3. There are only so many ways of saying “The Minerals Management Service (MMS) doesn’t do anything about program heads snorting meth off of toasters.” But this was a fun way to try to switch it up.
  4. One of the things I admire most about POGO is that we don’t check off our accomplishments and never look back—we follow through and make sure that agencies don’t just say they’ll fix an agency, but actually look at what they do to accomplish it. This post on the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) and the concerns with their reform efforts seems like a good example.
  5. It turns out the problems at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and their coziness with industry may be even worse than what we saw at MMS before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
  6. Bonus: Also not technically a blog post, but I had a lot of fun creating these oversight valentines. And here’s something I generated as an intern that I’m also really proud of.

Watercooler: Anything you’d mention to lawmakers, given the chance?

MS: When it comes to hearings, don’t book it in the afternoon. And especially not on a Friday. I always think of that when I lament that Senator [Claire] McCaskill’s great contracting subcommittee hearings are always booked in the afternoon. By the afternoon, most press deadlines have passed. On Friday, the hearing risks getting bumped off the news broadcast in lieu of another celebrity adoption. A congressional oversight hearing is newsworthy business—let it get the copy it deserves.

Photo: Danni Downing Photography.

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