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Government Report Finds Former USAGM CEO Abused Authority, Wasted $1.6 Million in Funds

FILE - Michael Pack at his confirmation hearing to lead USAGM, Sept. 19, 2019.
FILE - Michael Pack at his confirmation hearing to lead USAGM, Sept. 19, 2019.

The first presidentially appointed head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media breached editorial firewall regulations, engaged in gross waste of public funds and abused his authority, according to a 145-page report released Wednesday by the Office of Special Counsel.

The OSC, an independent agency empowered to investigate wrongdoing within the federal government, alerted USAGM in December 2020 to a number of allegations of wrongdoing under the leadership of Michael Pack and directed the federal agency to conduct an investigation. USAGM subsequently engaged three independent experts with backgrounds in government whistleblower protections and journalism to conduct the probe.

The experts' report, which was submitted to OSC, found evidence of gross mismanagement in two instances. It said CEO Pack engaged in gross waste when he spent $1.6 million on an unnecessary contract with a private law firm, and he failed to respect the journalistic independence and integrity of the networks he was tasked with overseeing.

Pack, a conservative documentary filmmaker, was nominated by then-President Donald Trump to his position as head of the agency that oversees six independent news networks and other entities, including Voice of America. Seven months after assuming the position, he resigned in January 2021 at the request of President Joe Biden.

The independent report focuses on six areas based on complaints from whistleblowers within the agency.

The three external investigators conducted 78 interviews, 64 with people who are current or former employees in the agency or its networks. The investigators requested interviews with Pack and 13 members of his senior political team as well as the Pack appointees heading three of those networks. Those requests were declined or not responded to in all but two cases.

The report publishes correspondence between the OSC and Pack when he was still CEO, in which the OSC says it found a "substantial likelihood" of lawbreaking. The report says Pack told the investigators that the allegations did not merit consideration because the whistleblowers "have an axe to grind."

Among the findings

The independent report's findings concluded that Pack abused his power when:

  • He improperly suspended security clearances of six executives and one management employee "without a legitimate basis."
  • Tried to debar federal funding to the Open Technology Fund, which finances research to circumvent foreign censorship.
  • Violated the International Broadcasting Act by attempting to change bylaws and contracts of CEO-appointed network heads.
  • Violated the Privacy Act by directing employee-related materials to be sent to individuals outside the agency. The independent report notes he did this despite an external law firm telling him the action could violate the law.

On gross mismanagement:

  • Pack moved the VOA Standards Editor, who is responsible for maintaining and enforcing VOA's journalistic ethics, to a position with no function. That action, the report found, prevented the editor from answering queries from VOA journalists about their work and from holding a workshop on ethical election reporting in the closing months of the 2020 presidential campaign.
  • He spent $1.6 million to have a law firm investigate staff when the work could have been done by federal employees.
  • He took actions that were inconsistent with the statutory mandate that the CEO respect the networks' journalistic independence and integrity.

The independent report found Pack violated "laws, rules and regulations," as follows:

  • A directive restricting outside communications failed to account for USAGM's legally required disclosures to the State Department and other entities.
  • He violated the Privacy Act the day before he resigned when a senior adviser, whose name is redacted in the report, shared investigative material about six executives with nongovernment individuals.
  • His acting vice president for legal, compliance and risk, whose name has been redacted in the report, violated record-keeping regulations by failing to preserve government communications and communicating via encrypted and disappearing message apps.

Violations of the Privacy Act can constitute a misdemeanor and carry a fine of up to $5,000.

Investigators also determined that several whistleblower complaints did not amount to mismanagement or abuse of authority by Pack.

These include the decisions to terminate network heads, change board members, freeze contracts and hiring, repurpose congressional funds, and refuse to approve or renew J-1 visa applications for foreign journalists working at the agency.

In the case of the visas, the independent report notes that Pack failed to account for the impact the actions would have on the ability of VOA to report the news in several languages, nor did he provide a viable alternative to hiring foreign journalists with needed language skills. In his time in power, Pack acknowledged the need to explain his rationale for the decision, but "that guidance was never provided."

Pack did not respond to emails from VOA sent Wednesday seeking comment on the report.

David Seide, senior counsel at the Government Accountability Project, which represented around 30 whistleblowers during Pack's time as CEO, noted the OSC's bipartisan credentials and described the report as "breathtaking in its scope."

Seide said OSC reports only go into so much depth and detail "when they know the integrity of the organization is on the line and you have to demonstrate to the world that you're trying to play it straight, you're trying to conduct an objective analysis."

While calling the report "exhaustive," Seide said he believes more should still be done, including the referral of some matters to the Department of Justice for further investigation.

In a statement Wednesday, USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett welcomed the process and results of the review.

"When I became CEO in October 2022, I pledged to focus on USAGM's mission as one of the world's largest global media operations, with a robust editorial firewall and the highest of journalistic standards," said Bennett, a veteran journalist who previously headed VOA.

FILE - USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett testifies before the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, March 9, 2023, in a still made from video.
FILE - USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett testifies before the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, March 9, 2023, in a still made from video.

"The agency has advanced a comprehensive set of corrective actions and reforms to address many of the issues identified by the independent review team. We will continue this work," she said.

In a letter to Biden, made public along with the report, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said, "The report largely substantiated the deeply troubling conduct disclosed by the whistleblowers. However, I am heartened by the steps that the agency has taken to restore its operations and its reputation."

Trust issues

The report gives a detailed accounting of how Pack and his team believed that employees at the Congress-funded news networks were biased and untrustworthy.

The team assisting Pack earmarked several senior officials at the federal agency for dismissal, describing them as "deep state" and "not people to be trusted."

Pack subsequently took actions against some of those same individuals "without a legitimate basis" after they had made protected disclosures, according to the independent report.

On June 5, 2020, Pack met with a career employee, not identified in the report, who in a memo had identified "targets for removal."

In that memo and follow-up emails, the employee included suspected political affiliations of the targets with remarks such as, "Eliminate the entire … team (anti-Trump)," "Hates Republicans and Trump," and "not on the Trump team."

Some of the biggest concerns during Pack's time related to efforts to dismantle the editorial firewall, which refers to laws and regulations that protect VOA from political interference.

A federal district judge in November 2020 issued a preliminary injunction barring officials from interfering with the editorial independence and First Amendment rights of VOA journalists.

In assessing Pack's failure to respect the firewall, the independent report cites his conflicting responses. The CEO directed a political appointee to investigate a VOA Urdu video that was seen to be partisan but took no action when informed that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting had provided a political appointee with a link to content.

Pack also failed to take action or intervene when his newly appointed head of VOA, Robert Reilly, retaliated against White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara after she asked "legitimate questions of the Secretary of State." Reilly had invited then-Secretary Mike Pompeo to participate in a question-and-answer session at VOA, but the director failed to ask Pompeo any questions that had been submitted by agency journalists. Widakuswara subsequently shouted questions at Pompeo as he left the VOA building.