POGO won five awards for excellence in journalism Tuesday from the Society of Professional Journalists D.C. Chapter. Those included the top prize in the annual Dateline Awards competition, the Robert D.G. Lewis Watchdog Award, for reporting on prosecutorial misconduct at the Department of Justice.
The other awards, including honors for investigative reporting, non-breaking news, and series, were for coverage of Washington’s revolving door and problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system.
The Dateline Awards honor journalism from a wide range of media, including newspaper, magazine, broadcast, and online news. POGO’s five awards made it the biggest winner when the 2015 awards were announced at the National Press Club.
The judges chose POGO’s “Department of (In)Justice” package for the Lewis Award from all the entries in all the media divisions, saying it drew the attention of Congress and “stood out head and shoulders above the rest.” The award named Nick Schwellenbach, Adam Zagorin, and David Hilzenrath, the lead journalists on the project.
Drawing upon little-noticed public records and data extracted through the Freedom of Information Act, POGO reported that, over a decade, an internal affairs office at the Justice Department had documented hundreds of cases of prosecutorial abuse and other professional misconduct by DOJ attorneys. The violations included misleading courts and withholding exculpatory evidence from defendants, POGO’s entry explained.
However, with few exceptions, the internal affairs office and Justice Department managers kept under wraps all but the sketchiest of information about the violations, POGO reported. When the Justice Department finds that its own lawyers have subverted the judicial process, it routinely shields itself and its prosecutors from public scrutiny and accountability, POGO’s coverage showed.
In a case study, “Justice Department Downplays Evidence of Politics in Probe of Governor,” POGO pulled back the curtain on a major internal probe and revealed how, when the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility gathered evidence of inappropriate conduct, its conclusions appeared at odds with its evidence. The case study focused on the Justice Department’s investigation and prosecution of former Alabama Governor Donald Siegelman, who was convicted of corruption in 2006 and sent to prison.
Citing POGO’s work, members of the U.S. Senate have introduced bipartisan legislation to transfer policing of prosecutorial misconduct from OPR, the internal affairs unit, to a watchdog with greater independence. Sponsors of the legislation include the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Department of (In)Justice” also shared the Dateline Award for investigative reporting with another POGO project, “Revolving Doors, Relaxed Ethics,” by Michael Smallberg. “On his first day in office, President Obama pledged to close the revolving door that carries special interests in and out of government,” POGO’s entry said. “But a series of reports by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) revealed that the revolving door has remained wide open, allowing big businesses to hold sway over government policies that affect the health, security, and finances of every American.”
The judges said Smallberg’s work raised important questions “about why the system works as it does, but more importantly what is the damage to the public and public confidence.”
POGO’s reporting on the Department of Veterans Affairs—stories by David Hilzenrath and Lydia Dennett and photographs by Joe Newman—won the prize for non-breaking news.
“System Failure” by the Project On Government Oversight documented a pattern of retaliation against VA employees who spoke out about problems and detailed one veteran’s journey through the VA health care system, from medical nightmare to bureaucratic ordeal, spotlighting areas in need of reform.
The coverage drew on hundreds of tips that VA employees and patients submitted to POGO through a web site that POGO and a veterans’ group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, created for that purpose. While POGO was investigating, the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a subpoena demanding that POGO turn over information it had received from confidential sources, including their identities. POGO refused to comply, saying the subpoena violated its rights under the First Amendment.
At a time when problems at the VA dominated headlines nationwide, the Dateline Award judges credited POGO with providing a deeper look inside the system. “A real blockbuster story,” they said.
POGO’s award-winning staff members reflect the range of backgrounds of the POGO staff. Zagorin was formerly a reporter for Time Magazine. Hilzenrath, POGO’s editor-in-chief, joined the nonprofit in 2012 from The Washington Post. Schwellenbach was formerly POGO’s director of investigations. Smallberg joined POGO straight out of college and has reported extensively on the revolving door and financial regulation. Dennett is a European History and English Literature major who joined POGO shortly after college and has done extensive research on flaws in federal oversight of foreign lobbyists.
This was the second consecutive year that POGO won Dateline Awards. Last year, POGO won prizes for investigative and business journalism.