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Jack Mitchell: Public Interest Warrior

Jack Mitchell (left) at POGO's 25th Anniversary Gala in 2006, alongside tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. (Photo: Pam Rutter / POGO)

On December 5, POGO lost a close member of our family: Jack Mitchell, 69, died after a long battle with cancer. His death was a terrible shock to those of us who had seen him recently, as it appeared he had beaten the insidious disease. As Jack’s close friend Dan Moldea recently noted, Jack was a warrior in the public interest. But most important to Jack, he was a husband to Patty and a father to Hailey.

We had the pleasure of knowing Jack for 30 years, working with him most closely when he served as a POGO Board member from 1991 until 2007. He was a life-long investigator who had a rare trait for a Washington person—he never sold out. Jack worked for years with legendary investigative journalist Jack Anderson as a reporter. He later took a position at the FDA, during which time he worked closely with tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand to expose the tobacco industry’s efforts to suppress evidence that smoking causes cancer, leading to the historic regulation of the industry. He went on to work in the Senate mentoring congressional staff in the art of investigation, as an investigator for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, and ultimately for the nonprofit National Center for Health Research, all with the public’s interest at the heart of his efforts.

Jack had practically perfect attendance at POGO board meetings, and for most of his tenure he served as vice chair. Our conversations often revolved around corruption, and Jack would inevitably drop in the line that he was a “Pittsburgh guy.” He wasn’t simply pointing out that he wasn’t from Washington; he was pointing to his roots in common sense and honesty. It was his way of saying that he just didn’t understand people who could be so corrupt, because that way of thinking was so far from how he was raised.

Jack Mitchell was a life-long investigator who had a rare trait for a Washington person—he never sold out.

Jack always strived to be fair. Whenever POGO worked on revolving door issues, he would worry that the inclusion of former government officials in one of our reports could be interpreted to mean that the former official had broken the law. He would insist that we include statements in our work that inclusion did not suggest illegality or misdeeds. To this day, when certain issues around fairness to a subject of an investigation come up, we think, “What would Jack Mitchell say?”

He was also unusually concerned about the welfare and happiness of others. As a board member he was fiscally conservative, but he strongly urged that we pay our interns. This was in the early 1990s, when very few organizations were paying their interns. Jack always wanted POGO to be a leader in employee benefits. He was also quick to try to help a fellow investigator on the Hill get a job when their boss lost an election.

When Jack took a job in the Senate, he had to leave POGO’s board in order to avoid real and perceived conflicts of interest, but would still call often to check in to see how we were doing. After he joined the nonprofit world, he would call us to swap trends about nonprofits. Sometimes he would ask if something a nonprofit was doing sounded right; sometimes he would let us know about something a group was doing that was really working that POGO might want to consider. He even continued to work with POGO on an investigation into human trafficking in Afghanistan even though he was no longer working in that field, because he was concerned it was an urgent problem that needed solving. And, as if his career in the public interest wasn’t helping enough, he spent what little free time he had continuing to do good, joining the boards of other nonprofits, like Shepherd’s Table in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Jack lived his life working to make the world a better place. He was an example for all of us, and will be sorely missed.