Five Questions with Andre Francisco: Communications Associate

December 16th, 2011

Andre “3000” Francisco is POGO’s Communications Associate. He makes awesome videos and podcasts for POGO, writes for the blog, is a Tumblr extraordinaire, and solves technical problems that stump the rest of the communications team. He hails from the frigid land of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and graduated from Northwestern in 2009 with a degree in journalism. The Watercooler caught up with Andre about journalism, weird food, and gallivanting through foreign countries.

Watercooler: So you’ve taught English in both South Korea and Hungary—can you tell us about it?

AF: I taught English in Seoul for one year and in Sarkad, Hungary for six months. Both experiences were very different—Seoul is a giant city, and I was at a small private school. In Hungary, I was in a rural town working in a public school. I learned a lot—in Hungary for example, it was difficult to explain the concept of racism to Hungarian seniors. We were studying Martin Luther King and civil rights, and they didn’t grasp why it was important. I tried to connect it to the large Romani population that is discriminated against in Hungary. In Korea, most of my stories are about kids coughing into my mouth.

Watercooler: Interesting…do you have a favorite Korean food?

AF: There’s this Korean chain called Red Mango. If you get your frozen yogurt to-go, they tape a little pouch of dry ice on top of your frozen yogurt, so sometimes, the yogurt freezes on the inside of the container. Then, you can combine it with hot water from spigots that are in 7/11. And you end up with your own foaming fog thing on the street.

Watercooler: Do you have a favorite Korean restaurant in the DC area?

AF: There’s a place called Honey Pig in Annandale, Virginia. It’s authentic in all the right ways, which means it mainly has bad Yelp reviews. The menu is permanently on sale, and they serve intestines.

Watercooler: You started your own blog about the homeless population in Chicago—how did you get the idea?

It started as a class project. I reported on the different kinds of services available to the homeless in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Then, I did another class project about Chicago’s homeless being outsourced to Indiana. So after I went to Elkhart, I started my blog. In my free time, me and a photographer for Do 1 Thing hung out with a 19-year-old homeless man. Homelessness in the U.S. is an important topic, and the homeless have interesting, unique stories to tell.

Watercooler: You have a lot of nicknames at POGO—what’s your favorite?

AF: Kimchi boy is not my favorite. I like the ever-changing aspect of Thacker’s—I started at Andre 2000, but after I helped him with technical problems, I got up to Andre 25,000.

Get To Know an Intern: Five Questions with Lydia Dennett

December 9th, 2011

Lydia Dennett is POGO’s winter intern. She has been working closely with National Security Fellow Ben Freeman on issues related to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, spending many long days at the Department of Justice in a locked room, poring over mounds of documents. Lydia is originally from Portland, Maine, and she graduated from Hartwick College in 2011. The Watercooler talked with her recently about the streets of Portland, European history, and fish from the Nile River.

Watercooler: What is your favorite part of Portland, Maine?

LD: It’s a very hip city. It’s really small. But they have a huge art culture and music scene. In the old port it’s all cobblestone streets right on the waterfront with bars and places to go see music and a million art galleries—one on every street—local businesses, and a farmers’ market. It’s great. I love it.

Watercooler: What do you do when are not at POGO?

LD: When I’m not at POGO, I’m typically at home. I’m staying with my aunt and uncle for free, so the deal is that I help out around the house. I have my friends from college down here, which is great. I try to do at least one cultural thing each weekend, like go to a museum or concert. Then I go out at night to Adams Morgan or wherever.

Watercooler: What did you study in college?

LD: I majored in English literature and European history. What I liked most about it…In English it was great because I got the chance to take a lot of different classes. Like westerns in fiction and film, which was a great class. We got to read great books like Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. What I liked most about my history major was that my school gave you the chance to choose one area in the world. I was absolutely fascinated by European history.

Watercooler: What is your favorite place that you have traveled to?

LD: I’ve done a lot of traveling. My absolute favorite place was Egypt. As a bit of a history nerd, it was great to be able to go there with one of my history professors who loves the country and the history. There is nothing better than being able to crawl into one of the pyramids. I’ve also been to Cuba—that was great. Greece—that was great. I got to go to Cuba because my sister married a Cuban and the wedding was in Cuba.

Watercooler: What was the worst or weirdest thing you have ever eaten?

LD: When I was in Egypt we went to a really cute little restaurant on the Nile in Aswan. Since we were part of a group, they just served you without you ordering. We got this fish soup that had some weird fish in it that they caught in the Nile, which is sketchy at best. It was gritty and sandy. It was absolutely inedible. No one ate it.

POGO’s Blog Roll

November 3rd, 2011

By ANDRE FRANCISCO

We hope you faithful Watercooler readers have finished all our Spring Reading recommendations, because we’ve got another round of suggestions. This time it’s the blogs that feed the daily curiosity of the POGO staff.

They range from wonky to hobby-focused to purely eye candy, but we hope you find them all interesting. And please let us know what your favorite blogs are, besides POGO’s of course, in the comments.

Dana Liebelson, Beth Daley Impact Fellow
Foreign Policy Passport
101 Cookbooks
Pitchfork

Jake Wiens, Investigator
Danger Room
BoingBoing
NFC East Blog

Continue Reading »

Kristin Bauer Lends POGO Star Power

October 11th, 2011

By CHRIS PABON

I (and many others here in the POGO office) are huge fans of HBO’s True Blood. We all have our favorite characters, and mine happens to be Pam, the snarky, Swedish vampiress whose face melts off in season four. The character is played by actress Kristin Bauer, who as we found out, is also a good government advocate.

How do we know? In July, Kristin Bauer re-tweeted a POGO report on how to save almost $600 billion dollars over the next decade in defense spending.

I also happen to enjoy going to conventions, and decided to attend the Monster-mania Con in Hunt Valley, MD this month because both Bauer and Lauren Bowles (who plays a Wiccan waitress on the show) were there. I had the opportunity to meet Bauer, and can personally testify that she is friendly and nice (nothing like her vampire alter ego.) She not only signed an autograph for me, but agreed to take a picture with the POGO bumper sticker (evidence attached).

Yes, I was kind of star struck: she is a class act and extremely cool.

Chris Pabon is POGO’s Director of Development.

Get to Know POGO’s Data Specialist: Five Questions with Johanna Mingos

August 1st, 2011

Johanna Mingos joined POGO in the fall of 2010. Whether she’s pitching in with massive undertakings like POGO’s SEC revolving door database or devising a system to keep track of investigators’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, she’s always made things go more smoothly here in suite 900 and has been an invaluable part of our team. In addition to her work as Data Specialist at POGO, Johanna is studying biology at Northern Virginia Community College. The Watercooler recently caught up with her to inquire about her work at POGO, pathology, and her favorite restaurants in her neighborhood in DC.

Watercooler: What do you like about working at POGO?

Johanna Mingos: I love the office atmosphere. It’s amazing how much important work we’re doing while having way too much fun at the same time.

Watercooler: What’s your favorite POGO program area and why?

JM: My favorite program area is the one that I’m working on that day. My job allows me to experience the behind-the-scenes pieces to so many of the areas that I try to learn as much as I can while I’m working on any project.

Watercooler: We hear you’re kinda into pathology. What’s one of the most interesting diseases you’ve come across in your studies?

JM: Smallpox. From its devastating history and eradication to the continuing debates over the remaining stockpiles, smallpox is fascinating science.

Author Richard Preston illustrates just how dangerous smallpox can be and it was his “Dark Biology” trilogy that sparked my interest in this virus. Another great read about smallpox history and eradication is Smallpox – Death of a Disease.

Watercooler: What’s your favorite restaurant in the Capitol Hill area?

JM: My favorite date-night restaurant is Acqua Al 2, just across the street from Eastern Market. The menu is full of fantastic pasta dishes. As much as I would like to try something new, I always find myself ordering the Topini al Gorgonzola (gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce).

For after-work pitchers of margaritas, it’s La Plaza on Pennsylvania Ave. Grab a table outside and enjoy people (and pet) watching and lots of good eats. Bonus: complimentary tequila shot after your meal!

Watercooler: You’ve sat at several different desks during your time at POGO. Which spot is the best?

JM: Considering all factors—location, chair, and computer—my preferred workspace is the window desk in Bryan and Pam’s office. It’s often a hub of activity, conversations, and spur-of-the-moment meetings.

Watercooler: You’ve been an enormous help with our Provoke Accountability sticker distribution project. What’s the most interesting place we’ve ever sent a sticker to? What’s your favorite Provoke Accountability photo in our Facebook album?

JM: Schenectady, NY. Because I like to say “Schenectady.” Try it. Favorite photo, hands down, is the sticker on the horse’s…bumper?

Rutter Family Walks 39.3 Miles as Part of Avon Walk for Breast Cancer

July 19th, 2011

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

The Watercooler editorial board hears those words all the time from Keith Rutter, POGO’s unflappable Director of Operations. But recently, Keith, along with Pam Rutter, POGO’s Web Manager, and Erin, Pam and Keith’s daughter, put those words into action, and traveled to San Francisco to participate in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer—a two-day, marathon-and-a-half jaunt to raise money for the fight against breast cancer. The Watercooler recently caught up with Keith to find out what inspired them to make the trip and to get the lowdown on the whole experience.

The Watercooler: Why did you decide to walk 39.3 miles in two days for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer?

Keith Rutter: The short answer is that Pam’s brother Wayne was going to do it with his office in San Francisco. He asked Pam to join him and we all decided to take part.

The long-form answer is that POGO’s small, tight-knit family has been directly affected by breast cancer. It started with [POGO General Counsel] Scott Amey’s sister, Cheryl. She was in her 30s and married with two young kids when she died because of breast cancer. Then Pam’s mom, who had moved in with us to seek better treatment for her breast cancer, lost her battle. And last year, as many of you know, after a long, seven-year struggle, Beth Daley succumbed to breast cancer. Right now, friends of POGO—Mary, Shelly, and others—are battling breast cancer. Doing what we can to help stop breast cancer was a no-brainer. POGO staff and alums were very generous in donating to the cause. Finding a cure for breast cancer is not in POGO’s mission, but we are all on board to find a cure.

The Watercooler: What kinds of people participated in the walk?

KR: That was one of the things that was really amazing. The walkers were very diverse. Folks of all ages—our daughter Erin was the youngest person in the walk—from all over the country participated. We were surprised at how many companies and groups had teams of walkers. I swear I saw t-shirts with something like “Dockworkers to Stop Breast Cancer” on them. KRTY, a country music station in San Jose, sent a bus of 65 walkers. They also had a van with a bunch of folks who circled the walk route. They were the greatest folks. (But they did play a lot of Toby Keith ;) ). We heard that over 1,900 people started the walk, and that didn’t count the hundreds or more of folks who lined the streets.

The Watercooler: Can you describe what a typical moment on the course looked / felt / sounded / smelled like?

KR: Most of the walk was surprisingly like if you mixed Mardi Gras and the Tour de France.  There were hundreds of folks who lined the streets where we walked to cheer you on. Many of the folks were in costumes. You saw everything from cops in pink tutus to women in big feather masks with angel wings. The only thing that was consistent was that everything was pink.

Folks along the route would pass out candy, bottled water, inspirational buttons and even beads.  A lot of people brought boom boxes and would blare music and dance while they were encouraging you to keep going. You would pass some folks and they would wait until everyone would pass and then get in their cars—or some on bikes—and then drive ahead on the route to cheer walkers on again. There were even long stretches for a few miles where we were walking on a path through marshlands of Marin county and there were folks there with crazy outfits and music yelling “Go go go!”

We were also very thankful that it was in San Francisco, because Washington experienced an incredible heat wave when we were gone for the walk. So we were thankful for the cool temperatures of northern California. As for the smell, well, it was a mix of sweat, suntan lotion, and ocean breeze. Your standard victory smells.

The Watercooler: Which mile was the hardest?

KR: Bet you are thinking some of those famous San Francisco hills we went up. Or maybe you are guessing the last mile. But actually the hardest mile was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on Sunday. The bridge walkway, which was about eight feet wide, was jammed with not only over a thousand walkers, but also hundreds of tourists—both walking and on bikes—and also lots of hardcore cyclists looking like they were in the Tour de France. Folks going both ways on the bridge. Bikers not wanting to stop riding and walk their bikes. It was bedlam. And we had walked over 30 miles at this point so we were tired and were not as patient as usual.

The Watercooler: What was your first thought when you crossed the finish line?

KR: “What do we have to do to check out, because we have got to get to our hotel.” We had to beg the hotel to let us have a late checkout and we thought we would be back in plenty of time. But, it took us over an hour longer to complete the walk on the second day than we thought. So we crossed the finish line, checked out of the walk, posed very quickly for a few photos, and literally ran…well, some of us did more of a hurried hobble. We had to rush back to our hotel and grab our stuff and had a couple minutes to spare. It was more “Yakety Sax,” the song from Benny Hill, than it was the theme from Rocky.

Get to Know a POGO Intern: 5 Questions with Rohail Premjee

July 7th, 2011

Rohail Premjee joined POGO as an intern this summer. He hails from Fort Worth, TX, is an eagle scout, and has served as a two-term Page in the U.S. House of Representatives. He’s currently a student at Dartmouth and plans to major in Government and minor in Public Policy. The Watercooler recently caught up with Rohail to find out about his experience at POGO, the meaning of his name, and bad drivers.

Watercooler: What attracted you to POGO?

Rohail Premjee: Having worked in Congress before, I really wanted to look at policymaking from a different perspective. I see that POGO is great for me because it is a top-notch non-governmental organization that really advocates causes I value, such as government accountability and transparency. Working at POGO has already taught me how we can work to make government more open and ways we can help strengthen congressional oversight.

Watercooler: What’s the best part about working at POGO so far?

Rohail Premjee: The close-knit environment. Everyone is so personable and not cold-shouldered. And they really want to teach you, which is great!

Watercooler: Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Rohail Premjee: Mmmmhhh I’m hoping to have already completed a graduate degree, but I don’t know in what. I can see myself working in a city like DC or Seattle.

Watercooler: The Watercooler understands that your name translates to “boy who likes to travel.” What’s been your favorite trip of the last three years, and where do you want to go next?

Rohail Premjee: Either Toronto or London, maybe even my stays in Chicago or DC—I love big cities. While I’ve been to Germany before, I want to explore it again, but this time visiting all its major cities such as Berlin and Frakfurt.

Watercooler: Which drivers are worse: DC drivers, or Dallas drivers?

Rohail Premjee: DC, BY FAR.

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

July 1st, 2011

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.

Get to Know Ben Freeman, POGO’s National Security Fellow

June 22nd, 2011

Fair warning to foreign lobbyists and defense contractors: POGO’s just added some major firepower to its national security team. In June we were joined by Ben Freeman—a corruption-busting, night-lecturing, Floridian who earned his Ph.D. in political science from Texas A&M University. The Watercooler recently caught up with Doc Freeman to find out how he wound up here, what it was like to write a book, and where his allegiances were in the NBA Finals, among other things. Read on, but don’t forget to follow Ben on Twitter.

Watercooler: What got you interested in working for POGO and in the realm of national security?

Ben Freeman: POGO was an easy choice. I’ve always been very patriotic and concerned with making our government the best it can possibly be. POGO has been doing precisely this for 30 years. What I like most about POGO is that the organization doesn’t just identify problems and complain about them, it tells policymakers and American taxpayers precisely how the system can be fixed. This is an invaluable service to America and a very noble calling. POGO’s task is not easy because it often works to change entrenched systems filled with very powerful people that thrive within those systems. POGO does what’s right regardless of who’s doing what’s wrong, and that makes me immensely proud to be a part of POGO.

I study national security and U.S. foreign policy because America enjoys phenomenal influence over the entire world—more so than any other country ever has. The flip-side is that with globalization, technological advances, and heightened political interconnectedness, America is also more open to foreign influence than it has ever been. So, it’s vital for us, as Americans, to be concerned about national security and to consider the impact of U.S. foreign policy on other countries. There’s just so much at stake on both counts that it’s impossible for me to NOT investigate national security and U.S. foreign policy.

Watercooler: What brought you to Texas?

Ben Freeman: I ended up in Texas because I fell in love with studying politics. I’m one of those crazy people who actually loves numbers, math, and statistics, so I was drawn to the Political Science Department at Texas A&M University, which has a top-notch quantitative methods program. Although I definitely missed Florida, where I was born and raised, Texas was awesome! Some of the greatest people in the world live in the great state of Texas. Aggieland and Austin, where I lived for a year, will always have a place in my heart.

Watercooler: Why did you decide to write a book, and what is it about? How was the experience of writing a book like? Continue Reading »

Revolving Door Open Mic

May 24th, 2011

These days, POGO’s been thinking a lot about the revolving door and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). So much so, in fact, that POGO staffers were inspired to compose a villanelle about some of the findings in our latest report and accompanying database:

The SEC officials shuttle fast through the revolving door
219 raced from the government to Wall Street
They promised they hadn’t worked on these issues before

Stopping the Stanford Ponzi Scheme seemed like a chore
Spencer Barasch saw a get rich scheme and wanted a place at the teat
The SEC officials shuttle fast through the revolving door

Peter Simonyi’s work at Goldman Sachs would be different, he swore
His work on the issues at the SEC was marginal, discrete
They promised they hadn’t worked on these issues before

One left for industry after two days, one after three, another after four
For ACA Compliance, Deloitte, KPMG
The SEC officials shuttle fast through the revolving door

Peter Bresnan went from Enforcement to represent Bank of America Corp
And got his clients a settlement the judge found too sweet
But he promised he hadn’t worked on these issues before

Industry coziness doesn’t temper their roar
That financial collapse wasn’t because they didn’t have the fire to their feet
They promised they hadn’t worked on these issues before
So what if the SEC officials shuttle fast through the revolving door?

Any bards out there in the crowd? We’d welcome any, limericks, haiku, talkin’ blues ramblings, or other forms of poetic expression dedicated to the revolving door from our readers.

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