Accessibility links

Breaking News

US Government Media Whistleblowers Cleared of Wrongdoing

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

A U.S. government watchdog has cleared six senior officials at the government’s independent media agency of wrongdoing when they protested last year that the agency’s chief, appointed by former President Donald Trump, was attempting to politicize news operations.

The inspector general at the U.S. State Department recently concluded that Trump administration officials including Michael Pack had unlawfully retaliated against the six, five of whom have been reinstated under President Joe Biden while a sixth retired.

Pack at the time was chief executive officer of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees five networks: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.

Legally protected

The inspector general concluded that the six officials were protected under U.S. law as whistleblowers when they raised concerns about Pack’s actions. Pack last August suspended their security clearances, a prerequisite for their jobs, and placed them on administrative leave. He said his actions were aimed at restoring “respect for the rule of law in our work.”

Lawyers for five of the officials, Robert Litt and Mark Zaid, said the inspector general determined that Pack’s actions were “without a legitimate basis.”

“These official findings constitute a complete vindication of these six officials and entirely clears their record,” the lawyers said in a statement.

FILE - The U.S. Agency for Global Media logo at Voice of America, in Washington, Nov. 22, 2019.
FILE - The U.S. Agency for Global Media logo at Voice of America, in Washington, Nov. 22, 2019.

Pack’s contentious six-month tenure as the USAGM chief ended January 20 when Biden sought and received his resignation within hours of his inauguration.

Kelu Chao, the Biden-appointed acting USAGM chief, quickly reappointed five of the officials: Chief Financial Officer Grant Turner, Chief Strategy Officer Shawn Powers, General Counsel David Kligerman, Deputy Director for Operations Matt Walsh and Executive Director Oanh Tran. The sixth official, Marie Lennon, opted to retire.

David Seide, a lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection organization that represented Turner in the complaint against Pack, said that Pack and his Trump-appointed allies, during their tenure at USAGM, “managed to break the law, abuse authority, endanger public health and safety, and grossly mismanage the agency.”

Visa renewals denied

The Government Accountability Project accused Pack of disregarding the dangers to foreign journalists working for VOA in the United States by not signing pro forma paperwork to renew their J-1 visas to enter the U.S., as had routinely been done for years by previous agency leaders.

The watchdog group said one VOA journalist in China was persecuted by the Chinese government and his life was threatened. The State Department had approved his visa, the watchdog group said, but Pack refused to sign off, posing a question for critics of his action: “Why are non-U.S. citizens being brought to the U.S. to report on ‘significant American thought and institutions’ back to the rest of the world?”

VOA employs dozens of foreign journalists, many of them hired for their expertise and knowledge of their homelands and the news topics that readers, listeners and viewers overseas most want to know about.

Pack, a conservative filmmaker, was named by Trump to head USAGM in mid-2018. In the face of opposition from Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans, his nomination languished in the Senate for two years, but he won Senate confirmation in June 2020 and assumed leadership of the agency shortly thereafter.