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Remembering Tom Coburn’s quiet persistence

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The national debt is $23 trillion and counting.

I can think of no more fitting way to remember Tom Coburn than to cite that statistic. Knowing Coburn professionally as I did, it likely haunted him until his death Saturday morning at age 72.

As a U.S. senator, Coburn was almost singularly focused on what he saw as wasteful government spending. 

I interviewed him numerous times while I reported at CBS News. In each subsequent interview, he seemed not to remember me from the previous one. He was neither chatty nor personable with me, which was fine. I was just the reporter doing a story on taxpayer money.

Then in mid-2013, I was at a New York City airport, waiting to take a delayed flight to Washington, D.C., when I saw Coburn standing in the long line with other passengers to get his ticket changed. I thought it was interesting that he wasn’t pulling the “senator card.” He wasn’t impatiently pushing to the front of the line, or demanding to be taken ahead of the others. Later, as we boarded, he spotted me.

“I saw the story about CBS confirming the intrusion into your computers,” he said to me. “Why haven’t you asked me for help?”

I was surprised he knew who I was.

CBS News had just publicly announced results of a forensics exam that confirmed I’d been subjected to illegal surveillance of my work. Multiple forensics exams have proven the intruders used software proprietary to federal intel agencies, and government IP addresses, to monitor my work and home computers starting in at least 2011. Coburn was on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

He asked me to come to his office when we were both back in D.C. I did. He then quietly led an effort to get answers about my computer intrusions from the Department of Justice. The Justice Department never answered his questions. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) recently re-asked them and likewise has not received answers. Since the Justice Department has refused to hold anyone accountable, I am currently suing the government at my own expense. 

Coburn also is the first one who told me that the government can listen in on my phone even when it seems to be “off,” as long as the battery is in it. “Take out the battery when you cross the threshold of your driveway,” he advised. He was quietly persistent about my intrusion case until the time he retired from the Senate in 2016.

“Quiet persistence” also describes how Coburn pursued his primary passion in Congress: accountability for government spending. He consistently drew attention to both the debt and the deficit with reports exposing waste, fraud, abuse, duplicative spending and lack of oversight when it comes to billions of tax dollars. Sometimes, he did this at his own peril. Some Democrats and fellow Republicans did not like having their spending obsessions highlighted.

It was the one thing he felt he could do that meant something. Members of both parties tell me that their jobs increasingly have become over-managed from the top down. Party leaders micromanage which issues they can investigate, who is the target of their oversight, what hearings can be held and — just as important — which ones cannot be held. Those who go off script are less likely to get an important committee assignment and certainly won’t achieve “leadership” status. Maybe the leaders of their own party will even find a candidate to run against the uncooperative member in the next primary.

Coburn managed to navigate the challenges and remain focused on what he thought was the most important thing he could do as a senator: expose the government’s big-spending habits.

When he left Congress in 2016, he continued to keep his eye on the federal budget and even criticized his home state legislature in Oklahoma for its tax hikes. A medical doctor, Coburn had bouts with malignant melanoma, prostate cancer and colon cancer before a more recent recurrence of prostate cancer.

Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has passed. Time of death: $23 trillion on the national debt clock.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”

Tags Conservative Federal budget national debt Ron Johnson Sharyl Attkisson taxpayers Tom Coburn US Senate

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