WASHINGTON - A key Senate panel on Thursday approved President Donald Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the federal agency that oversees Voice of America and other international broadcasting entities.
On a 12-10 party-line vote, the Republican controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared the nomination to move to a full vote on the Senate floor.
Conservative documentary filmmaker Michael Pack’s nomination has been under consideration for nearly two years, held up in part because of concerns from Democrats over alleged financial self-dealing in his businesses.
Last week, the committee’s vote again was delayed after the Washington, D.C. attorney general’s office opened an investigation into whether Pack unlawfully used funds from his nonprofit, Public Media Lab, to benefit himself. The White House subsequently complained about the delay and said Trump stood behind Pack.
During Thursday’s meeting, multiple Democratic senators were voted down in their attempts to delay the vote again until Pack could address concerns regarding his finances or until the DC attorney general’s office completes its investigation.
“Michael Pack broke his commitment to me and refused to engage in good faith on serious issues,” ranking Democratic member Senator Bob Menendez said, adding that the Republican-led committee had failed to deal with the nomination in a bipartisan manner.
“You failed to even respond to the concerns of the entire Democratic membership of the committee,” Menendez said of Chairman Jim Risch.
Risch said the committee was prepared to stand down on the nomination “if the United States attorney general department, Department of Justice asks to stand down; [we] will do so. That has not happened here.”
VOA has reached out to Chairman Risch’s spokesperson for further comment.
Conflict of interest?
Menendez detailed committee Democrats’ concerns, alleging that Pack had “misrepresented the relationship between his nonprofit organization and his for-profit company to the IRS.
Pack’s film company, Manifold Productions, Inc., received millions in grants from his non-profit, Menendez said. Yet he repeatedly told the IRS that there was no relationship between the two when in fact he ran both of them. Menendez said that Pack has yet to correct misinformation provided to the IRS and to the committee regarding the status of his tax returns.
Menendez said Pack had not provided the committee with requested documents detailing the relationship between his nonprofit and his business, claiming sensitive business information.
“Business interests are so sensitive that the United States senators cleared to review the most sensitive classified information cannot see them,” Menendez said.
VOA has reached out to Pack’s spokesperson for comment.
White House slams Democrats, VOA
Menendez released video Thursday evening of the committee meeting that had been limited to an audio feed only. In a statement, Menendez said that “Earlier in the week, the entire Democratic bench of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to Chairman Risch requesting he reverse his dangerous decision to prevent members of the press and the American public from watching the proceedings. Their multiple requests went ignored.”
Risch said the decision was because of the logistics of holding the meeting under coronavirus social distancing measures and that the room chosen for the meeting could only accommodate an audio feed.
President Trump nominated Pack to lead the USAGM almost two years ago and has expressed frustration about the wait, saying it is due to Democratic obstruction. The president previously threatened to adjourn Congress to push the nomination through.
The White House accused Democrats of stalling the nomination last week following reports of the Washington, DC attorney general investigation, writing, “The President stands behind Michael Pack and is disappointed, but not surprised, that Do-Nothing-Democrats have once again decided to throw political mud on a public servant’s clean record.”
In recent weeks, Trump has criticized VOA for its news coverage of China during the coronavirus crisis. When asked about the Pack nomination last week, Trump said, “Voice of America is run in a terrible manner. They’re not the Voice of America. They’re the opposite of the Voice of America.”
VOA Director Amanda Bennett defended the U.S.-funded news agency’s mission and reporting in a statement last Friday.
“We export the First Amendment to people around the world who have no other access to factual, truthful, believable information,” she said.
“That’s why more than 80% of our 280 million audience in 47 languages in more than 60 countries say they find our work credible,” she added.
The USAGM oversees five U.S. civilian broadcast networks, which include VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Arabic-language stations Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN).
In his confirmation hearing last September, Pack addressed concerns he would attempt to impose a political bias on USAGM agencies, including VOA, which is mandated by U.S. law to be objective and balanced in its reporting.
"The whole agency rests on the belief the reporters are independent, that no political influence is telling them how to report the news and what to say. Without that trust, I think, the agency is completely undermined," Pack told the committee.