The "comfort capsules," as the Air Force so aptly dubbed them, had everything a discriminating world traveler could want: swiveling leather chairs, couches, wall-to-wall carpeting and a 37-inch flat-screen video monitor with stereo speakers, as well as other amenities a four-star general might need when flying on Uncle Sam's dime.
Heck, the chairs were even re-upholstered from brown to “Air Force blue” at a cost to taxpayers of $21,000 per four chairs. While the Air Force was spending millions of taxpayer dollars on these capsules, men and women on the frontlines were flying on torn-up netting.
After a Project On Government Oversight (POGO) investigation exposed the details in the summer of 2008, top military officials sputtered denials, and the news outraged Congress, which had twice told the Pentagon that the money needed to be spent on “higher priority” needs. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Colbert Report all followed the story.
It was an investigation that further strengthened POGO’s reputation as a Pentagon watchdog and helped make a name for Nick Schwellenbach, the 26-year-old POGO national security investigator who unearthed the scandal.
For Schwellenbach, whose last day as POGO’s director of investigations is this week, exposing the comfort capsules was one of the highlights of his career, which has included investigating the failures of the military whistleblower protection system, spurring reforms in how the U.S. deals with human trafficking, and exposing cost overruns in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—among other things.
“At POGO, I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot, and the luxury of time, something that is increasingly rare in the field of journalism” says Schwellenbach. “I’ve also been able to get a lot done on the Hill.”
Schwellenbach leaves POGO after six years, the last two spent as Director of Investigations. Ask Schwellenbach’s colleagues to describe him, and the phrases that come up show a guy who is not afraid to go against the grain and do what’s right—even if it seems a little unorthodox. He’s been called a ““mischievous genius,” “intellectually challenging, but in a fun way,” “a touch counterintuitive” and even, “a cheetah in the Serengeti—with zebras around.”
Erin Rutter, the daughter of POGO’s Chief Operations Officer, says “It is like they say on Sports Center, you can't control Nick Schwellenbach, you can only hope to contain him."
Schwellenbach first became acquainted with POGO as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Austin. He joined a university watchdog group at a time when UT Austin was competing with the state of California to win management of Los Alamos National Laboratory. He opposed this move as a student activist—and relied on a lot of POGO’s research for his cause. After he graduated with a degree in history and was trying to “figure out what the f*** to do with my life,” as Schwellenbach put it, he saw that POGO had a fellowship open. He tossed his name in the hat and got the job.
When Schwellenbach started at POGO, he worked on open government and nuclear security issues. He later transitioned into doing general investigations, and then spent two years working specifically as a national security investigator. After four years with POGO, he was accepted into an investigative journalism fellowship program in 2008 that allowed him to earn a Master’s Degree at American University while working with the Center for Public Integrity.
Schwellenbach completed his degree, and then was invited back to POGO to take over as Director of Investigations, succeeding Beth Daley, who passed away in 2010 from breast cancer. Upon returning to POGO, Schwellenbach really took his investigations to the next level, colleagues say, moving from quick-hit investigations to slow-simmering stories that took lots of planning.
“When Nick came back, he began to look at exactly what POGO was doing and narrowed his focus” says POGO board member David Burnham, a former New York Times investigative reporter. “He also worked incredibly hard.”
Burnham points to two of Schwellenbach’s investigations that he considers particularly outstanding: an investigation using data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) to examine whether the Department of Defense Inspector General was achieving its stated goals; and working with POGO investigator Michael Smallberg to create POGO’s “Revolving Door Database” for the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Richard Loeb, an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, says that his favorite investigation of Schwellenbach’s resulted in recommending ways to improve federal contract auditing—one of many investigations that led to Schwellenbach testifying on the Hill.
Why? Loeb says: “because he was right.”
Although Schwellenbach will be remembered at POGO for his investigations, he also started POGO’s blog, which has become a must read for policymakers, Hill staffers and inside-the-beltway journalists. POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian says his push for the blog—which happened “against her will”—demonstrates again that Schwellenbach has been “ahead of the curve.”
So what’s next for Nick? He’s off to Lebanon and then travelling to Ethiopia where he’ll work on his narrative writing, with his plans after that yet uncharted. Following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, he’s looking for “different experiences, new challenges, and the chance to get outside my comfort zone.”
POGO Chief Operations Officer Keith Rutter says it’s hard to predict what Schwellenbach will do next, but Rutter thinks eventually, Nick will “wise up” and come back to POGO. So does Brian.
Both Loeb and Burnham predict that in 10 years, he’ll be managing editor of The New York Times.
As for Schwellenbach, himself, he says in 10 years he could “absolutely” see himself coming back to POGO—as it’s an organization that allows him to straddle the line between advocacy and journalism. Then again, he says he might decide to write a few books that are “made into blockbusters,” and co-own a bar. He might even pick up his old childhood sport again: baseball.
“I’m surprisingly good at it” Schwellenbach says. “I’m a really good hitter.”
All images taken by the Project On Government Oversight.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.