WASHINGTON - Moving swiftly on her first day as acting CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, journalist Kelu Chao oversaw the removal of the top executive at the Voice of America, reversing a widely criticized appointment by her Trump-appointed predecessor, Michael Pack.
Robert Reilly, whom Pack appointed as director of Voice of America in December, was removed along with his deputy, Elizabeth Robbins. Yolanda Lopez, former VOA news director whom Reilly reassigned last week, was named acting director of VOA.
With his departure, Reilly made history as the first VOA director to have stood down twice, serving little more than a year during two appointments that were 20 years apart.
USAGM emailed staff about the changes Thursday, also confirming that President Joe Biden had selected Chao, a highly regarded veteran of VOA, as acting CEO of USAGM, the parent organization. Pack resigned Wednesday after the new Democratic administration informed him that he would be removed. Brian Conniff, former president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, was named Chao’s deputy.
The announcement added that Jeffrey Shapiro had resigned as director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
Chao, a veteran broadcast journalist who has worked for more than 40 years at Voice of America and the agency, is the first woman to hold the top position at USAGM.
In her acting role, Chao will oversee USAGM’s networks and grantees that include VOA, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the internet freedom nonprofit, the Open Technology Fund. The announcement said Biden was expected to nominate a permanent CEO soon.
Reilly’s appointment raised criticism and concern among lawmakers.
At least 48 current and former journalists had called for Reilly and Robbins to resign last week, charging that they had violated the network’s journalism code by giving a senior government official “a free platform to speak live on our channels.” They also cited the abrupt reassignment of White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara.
Widakuswara was moved to the Indonesian Service, where she started her career at VOA, after attempting to question then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over current news events after a speech delivered in the VOA auditorium.
She also confronted Reilly about why he had not used a question-and-answer period afterward to pose questions submitted by newsroom journalists on controversial matters.
Footage of her exchange with Reilly shows the director telling Widakuswara she was “not authorized” to ask questions and chastising her for not knowing how to behave. She had followed Pompeo out of the VOA building, calling out questions.
Lawmakers and former USAGM officials said last month that Reilly’s public comments and his published books expressing controversial views about homosexuals and Muslims risked causing irreparable harm to the network’s credibility and reputation. When he arrived as VOA director in December, Reilly told staff his previous writings were “irrelevant” to his official duties.
Eliot Engel, then the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, disagreed and described Reilly’s appointment as a “disgrace and an embarrassment.”
“VOA journalists shouldn’t have to endure the reputational harm of having to work for someone with views so backward and out of step with American values,” Engel, a Democrat from New York, said in a December statement.
USAGM provided no explanation for Reilly’s firing.
'It must be transparent'
Pack’s tenure as the first chief executive of USAGM was tumultuous and led to several whistleblower complaints, an order from the Office of Special Counsel to investigate allegations of mismanagement and separate court orders barring him and his aides from interfering in VOA editorial decisions or installing appointees at the Open Technology Fund, respectively.
Chao testified in the lawsuit alleging editorial interference.
The former CEO said in interviews he was trying to resolve long-standing security lapses and issues of bias.
David Seide, senior counsel of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, which represents more than 20 whistleblowers at VOA, welcomed the change in leadership.
He said the agency should move to reinstate Widakuswara and any other individual found to have been improperly suspended or removed and investigate allegations of mismanagement.
"There must be an accounting for what has happened over the past six months. It must be transparent. New leadership's support will be critical. I am confident they will provide it," Seide said.
During Pack’s tenure last year, lawmakers weakened the CEO position by introducing more checks and balances into the National Defense Authorization Act.
The changes will prevent the CEO or federal employees from serving on any grantee board. They will also give the board power to advise the agency head to ensure the integrity and independence of the networks is respected and to approve appointments or dismissals of network heads.
The boards will also need to be bipartisan, and the members must have a relevant background in journalism, technology, broadcasting or diplomacy.
The changes could affect a new conservative board appointed by Pack before his departure this week. On January 19, he announced new conservative members for the network boards that he had earlier dissolved, including Roger Simon, a contributor to The Epoch Times who falsely described January’s deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as a “false flag” operation, and Christian Whiton, who has defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea.