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Federal watchdog says “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” at US broadcasting agency

A Trump and Bannon ally leads the US Agency for Global Media. The Office of Special Counsel isn’t happy with what’s going on there.

The Voice of America building, part of the US Agency for Global Media, is located in Washington, DC.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

In June, a Steve Bannon ally and conservative filmmaker appointed by President Donald Trump took over running the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), a vast international network of news agencies funded and operated by the US government.

Within hours of introducing himself to employees, the new CEO, Michael Pack, purged four top officials. He then went on to ban visas for certain foreign reporters and began investigating journalists at the agency for suspected anti-Trump bias. In October, he announced he was eliminating the agency’s regulatory “firewall” — longstanding internal policies aimed at protecting the editorial independence of journalists at the agency from political interference from the government.

Critics accused Pack of abusing his power to turn America’s state-run news organizations, whose mission is to disseminate factual, unbiased news to people who live in countries where freedom of the press is either strongly curtailed or nonexistent, into Trump-friendly propaganda outlets.

While Pack and his team haven’t achieved a pro-Trump project, a federal watchdog has found accusations of gross mismanagement to be credible.

In letters to 11 whistleblowers on Wednesday night, the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) — an investigative and prosecutorial government body — revealed that it had found “a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” at the USAGM, which oversees four media organizations: Voice of America, Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

With help from the Government Accountability Project (GAP), which represents more than 20 current and former staffers at the USAGM, 11 whistleblowers sent specific complaints to the OSC over the last few months.

They included allegations that USAGM leadership “repeatedly violated the Voice of America (VOA) firewall” and “engaged in gross mismanagement and abuse of authority.” Further, the whistleblowers claimed leadership “pressured career staff to illegally repurpose … congressionally appropriated funds and programs without notifying Congress.”

On Wednesday evening, the OSC replied to these and other allegations, noting that what the whistleblowers alleged seemed to be true.

“OSC has found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing based on the information you submitted in support of your allegations,” wrote Karen Tanenbaum, an attorney with OSC’s Retaliation and Disclosure Unit.

However, OSC gives any offending agency — in this case, UASGM — 60 days to conduct its own probe and respond to the complaints. It’s not until that investigation ends that OSC makes a final determination. “This remains an open matter under investigation until the agency’s final report is forwarded to the President and Congress,” Tanenbaum concluded.

Still, GAP senior counsel David Seide, who represents the whistleblowers, believes the letters signal an early victory for his clients. “The conduct by [USAGM] is shocking, and we’re glad an independent agency agrees with us,” Seide told me in an interview.

It’s unclear whether Pack and other agency leaders will face any real penalties while in office, though. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to fire Pack, and the 60 days that USAGM has to respond exceeds the remaining time until Biden’s inauguration. It’s therefore likely that Pack and his team will leave government before receiving any reprimands.

But Seide and his clients feel this is more than just misbehavior on Pack’s part. This is about protecting the culture of an agency with the tough task of reporting news independently and fiercely while on the federal payroll. “There’s an accounting to be done here for lessons learned,” said Seide. “This is very much a work in progress.”

What may come out of all this, then, is a bunch of congressional hearings on how best to oversee the USAGM and a tough Senate confirmation battle over who Biden selects to replace Pack.

In the interim, the whistleblowers sense imminent victory. “We’re all very encouraged by the OSC response and hope USAGM will take it seriously,” a whistleblower, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons, told me.