May 23, 2007
May 22, 2007 05:38 PM EST
For John Sopko, conducting congressional oversight investigations is a lot like taking down the mob.
A former federal prosecutor who helped dismantle the Licavoli crime family in Cleveland in the early 1980s, Sopko sees a lot of similarities with his new job as chief counsel of oversight for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"They both involve a lot of long tedious questions and document requests," Sopko said. "The thrill of the chase is always the fun part."
Sopko is just one of a number of seasoned investigators and young muckrakers who have taken key oversight posts since Democrats took control of Congress, eager for what Sopko calls "a chance to do something after 12 years of waiting" for Republican rule to end.
At the committee, Sopko oversees an investigative team of about 10 staffers, including Steve Rangel, the son of Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), and an expert on telecommunications issues from his earlier work at the Federal Communications Commission.
Already this year, Sopko and his team have cut a wide investigative swath, holding hearings on the shutdown of the Prudhoe Bay oil pipeline in Alaska, the security of the nation's food supply and reports of mismanagement at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory in New Mexico.
Through it all, Sopko said the lessons of his days as a federal prosecutor are never far from his mind. "I learned a degree of skepticism when I interviewed bad people," he said.
"Even if I am interviewing an executive from (an oil company) on pipeline safety … I work just like a prosecutor," he said. "I ask a lot of questions; I want to see the scene of crime."
Sopko also worked as an adviser to then-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, leading several delegations to Latin America to investigate narcotics trafficking. Although Sopko was content in the private sector, once the Democrats regained congressional power, incoming committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
"Dingell's got oversight in his blood and a fire in his belly," Sopko said.
Another seasoned investigator back on the Hill is Jack Mitchell, the head investigator for the Senate Special Committee on Aging. A former CNN reporter, Mitchell was a protégé of Jack Anderson. The late columnist was considered by many to be the father of modern investigative journalism.
Earlier at the Food and Drug Administration, Mitchell had investigated the tobacco industry, working with Jeffrey Wigand, the industry whistle-blower and inspiration for the movie "The Insider."
Mitchell also worked for Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on the Oversight Subcommittee of what was then the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, helping to expose military procurement scandals.
Mitchell said that once he learned that Sopko and other longtime investigators were coming back, he decided to give congressional oversight another shot.
"It's like riding a bicycle," he said. "Once you remember how to do it, you realize how much you enjoy it."
The number of congressional investigators is hard to quantify because some serve multiple functions and others are hard to identify. But here is a snapshot of some key players:
* Jim McGee, an investigator for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who worked at The Miami Herald and The Washington Post. At the Herald, McGee staked out the Washington home of Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, helping to break the story of the Colorado senator's relationship with Donna Rice.
* Lorry Fenner, a retired Air Force colonel and a former staff member on the 9/11 Commission, is reviving the House Armed Services Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
* Elliot Mincberg, the new chief oversight counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, previously served as general counsel and legal director of the People For the American Way Foundation, a liberal advocacy group.
* Forensic accountants Michael Zola and Ryan Holden have been hired by the House Education and Workforce Committee to examine spending at the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services.
Both Zola, the committee's chief investigative counsel, and Holden, the committee's senior investigator, came from the Government Accountability Office's Forensic Audit and Special Investigations Division.