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USAGM Told to Investigate Allegations of Wrongdoing at Agency

The U.S. Agency for Global Media logo at Voice of America, in Washington, D.C., Nov. 22, 2019. (VOA)
The U.S. Agency for Global Media logo at Voice of America, in Washington, D.C., Nov. 22, 2019. (VOA)

A federal office set up to protect whistleblowers has ordered the federal agency that oversees Voice of America and other independent news networks to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by its own top officials.

The December 2 letters, signed by an attorney in the Office of Special Counsel, said U.S. Agency for Global Media head Michael Pack has been ordered to investigate after the OSC found “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” based on details in whistleblower complaints.

Since Pack’s appointment to the USAGM in June, network heads have been fired or resigned, Pack has stopped approving visa renewals for the agency’s foreign journalists, and his political appointees have conducted internal investigations of reporters and editors.

The letters are a further blow to the new CEO after a federal court issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Pack and his appointees from interfering with editorial decisions or violating journalists’ First Amendment rights.

Pack and his appointees were also barred from conducting investigations into news content or journalists, and from making personnel decisions involving individual staff members. The order is a stopgap measure to prevent further actions being taken until a legal complaint that alleges wrongdoing is resolved.

USAGM did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

The OSC is an independent federal agency set up to help protect so-called whistleblowers, or those federal employees who report allegations of wrongdoing in their workplaces. It can order investigations but does not have power to take disciplinary action.

The OSC sent more than 10 letters to attorneys or organizations representing whistleblowers. One of those, the Government Accountability Project (GAP), is representing more than 20 complainants at USAGM and VOA, most of whom request anonymity.

"The OSC letters represent a compilation of whistleblower complaints," David Seide, senior counsel at GAP, told VOA.

Letters issued to two representatives of whistleblowers, which have been viewed by VOA, list the same allegations, including:

— Repeated USAGM violations of the VOA firewall that protects the network’s independence.

— Gross mismanagement, including the firing of network heads at Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Network and Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and at the Open Technology Fund.

— Replacing a bipartisan board with political appointees and making the CEO the chair.

— Reassigning the VOA standards and best practices editor.

— Revoking security clearances of six USAGM officials.

— Refusing to renew J-1 visas to international journalists, which the letter said was “endangering both the continuity of agency operations and those individuals’ safety.”

— Improper hiring freezes and allegations of illegally repurposing or pressuring staff to repurpose congressionally approved funds.

— Prohibiting offices, including the general counsel, from communicating with outside parties without the consent of the front office.

"The OSC letters show that an independent federal agency — OSC — has agreed that our clients have shown a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing by agency political leadership,” Seide told VOA. “This is a significant step, far from the last one."

A federal agency typically has 60 days to investigate the complaints and report back to the OSC, and it can request an extension. The final OSC findings are sent to Congress and the U.S. president.

The OSC letters direct the USAGM head to investigate the agency. If Pack should resign or be removed from his position, the investigation would still continue.

Pack was confirmed by the Senate as CEO in June with a three-year term. However, after Pack fired several news executives upon his arrival, a spokesperson for the Joe Biden presidential election campaign told VOA that if elected, Biden would fire Pack.

Pack failed to appear for a September House of Representatives hearing examining the controversy at USAGM, drawing criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Representative Eliot Engel of New York, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told VOA last month, “I’m confident the Biden administration will appoint a competent leader at USAGM who understands our international broadcasting efforts, respects the law and can reverse the damage Mr. Pack has done during his short tenure.”

The OSC told VOA it was unable to comment on or confirm open investigations.

In the letters, the OSC said that while it believed the complaints appeared to show likelihood of wrongdoing, the investigation remained open.

Heads of federal agencies are required by law to investigate cases in which the OSC believes there appears to be substantial likelihood of wrongdoing.

The role that Pack might play in investigating USAGM actions under his watch wasn't clear.

Often the Office of Inspector General is asked to handle the investigation, but agency heads have discretion to use other investigative bodies.