Former Intern Gives Insight On Oversight

August 8th, 2008

Ella Hoffman, a former POGO intern and current member of the press team for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, spoke on August 8th at POGO’s intern brown bag lunch, providing unique insight into how House committees function.

Ms. Hoffman works to ensure that Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearings receive the press coverage that is essential to the committee”s mission to, as she put it, “shine a light” on problems involving the federal government. Some hearings, such as the high profile investigation into steroid use in Major League Baseball, receive massive media attention because of their subject and do not require much work from the press team. Other dry-sounding topics, however, can necessitate concerted efforts by the staff to draw media attention. For one hearing with a rather dowdy and technical-sounding title, the staff managed to get news coverage by inviting Dennis Quaid to testify.

Ms. Hoffman also discussed the extraordinary efforts that go into organizing a hearing. The staff first need to find suitable topics to investigate, which can come from headlines, whistleblower complaints to the committee’s hotline, or even the staff’s personal hunches. Once a topic has been chosen for further investigation, staff members consult experts and subpoena thousands of pages of documents. The staff then has a relatively short period of time to organize the hearing, find witnesses to testify, and coordinate press coverage; final preparations are sometimes finished just moments before a hearing starts.

— John Cappel
Everett Intern

Click below to see pictures from the lunch.

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Interns Get Schooled on FOIA at Brown Bag Lunch

July 23rd, 2008

On July 18th, Everett interns from POGO and other organizations had the privilege to learn about filing Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests from Mike Ravnitzky, an expert on FOIA who has filed thousands of requests. Mr. Ravnitzky explained all aspects of the FOIA process, including how to request material, how to handle fees, and how to appeal a denial.

Mr. Ravnitzky also provided the sort of invaluable information that can only be acquired through first-hand experience with FOIA. He provided insight into exactly why some requests may be denied, and what methods are most effective for dealing with certain problems such as astronomical fee estimates. The interns were also introduced to Mandatory Declassification Review, a far less commonly known process for requesting classified information.

In addition to providing technical insight into FOIA, Mr. Ravnitzky gave some interesting perspective on the handling of requests. In spite of the sometimes intimidating and monolithic image government agencies can present, Mr. Ravnitzky pointed out that the success of FOIA requests depends on agency officials who can make or break an agency’s entire FOIA system, and who sometimes even deny requests simply because they are difficult to handle.

— John Cappel
POGO Everett Intern

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POGO Brown Bag Lunch with Lou Fisher

July 23rd, 2008

During the summer, POGO hosts a weekly Brown Bag Lunch for Everett interns in the D.C. area who are curious about issues related to government oversight.  Our goal for the series is to educate upcoming generations about the importance of government accountability, and to give them the tools necessary to convert that knowledge into action.  The luncheons give us a unique opportunity to connect with top government experts in a casual setting (and to score some free pizza!).

At the beginning of the summer, we learned about the media’s coverage of defense issues from veteran reporters Tony Capaccio and Mike Fabey. On July 11th, we got the chance to hear from Louis Fisher from the Law Library of Congress, a widely respected expert on separation of powers.

Mr. Fisher spent most of the lunch talking about the history of the “state secrets privilege,” in which the government, particularly the executive branch, can deny access to documents, particularly for use in court, by claiming that the documents contain state secrets.

Mr. Fisher also discussed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and NSA surveillance, the CIA’s “extraordinary renditions” program (in which terrorist suspects are abducted and transported to other countries to be imprisoned and often tortured or abused), examples of executive branch misconduct, the failure of the legislative and judicial branches to provide proper checks on power, and widespread misconceptions about how the Constitution separates powers.

— John Cappel
POGO Everett Intern

Check out some pictures below from the lunch!

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