Trump appointee erred in firing Voice of America whistleblowers: watchdog

This article features our Senior Counsel David Seide and was originally published here.

A government watchdog found the Trump-appointed leader of Voice of America (VOA) erred in his dismissal of six employees, which was likely retaliation against whistleblowers and wrongly stripped some of them of their security clearances.

President Biden dismissed U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack on his first day in office following a string of complaints by employees that he was politicizing VOA and other state-funded media outlets.

Five of the employees in question have already been reinstated to their positions by the new administration, but the Thursday review from the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) clears all the employees of wrongdoing, while documents reviewed by The Hill include some previously unreported details about strife at the agency.

Under Pack’s tenure, the agency paused signing off on visas for the foreign journalists hired by VOA and pushed back on COVID-19 protocols.

“What is shocking are OIG’s discovery of the many more ways Pack and his political appointees – while running USAGM for a mere six months – managed to break the law, abuse authority, endanger public health and safety and grossly mismanage the agency,” David Seide, a whistleblower attorney with the Government Accountability Project who represented one of the employees, said in a statement.

Pack faced complaints from more than 30 whistleblowers during his tenure, firing six on the same day who had protested management decisions while at USAGM.

The OIG report found the agency was unable to make a case for stripping the security clearances of those fired that day and did not follow protocol for doing so, with the watchdog finding strong evidence of retaliatory motive.

The reports also detail how staff pushed back against Trump-appointed management after Pack refused to sign off on J-1 visas needed by foreign journalists working for VOA. That includes a China-based reporter who had recently had his life threatened and whose visa had already been approved by the State Department.

It was an unusual stance for an agency that has long relied on hiring a mix of both U.S. and foreign journalists to assist with broadcasts in multiple languages.

The agency prepared talking points in response to any question about the move, proposing to instead ask, “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?”

The report also details that Trump-appointed staff pushed back on some COVID-19 protocols at USAGM buildings.

“I will not clear anything that includes such language, and no one is authorized to do so, nor to negotiate terms related to so-called ‘enforcement’ of mask or social distancing … I want to ensure that we’re erring on the side of bringing back staff as quickly as possible,” then-USAGM chief of staff Emily Newman wrote in an August email.

Many of the dismissed employees rejoined the agency in February with Kelu Chao, acting CEO of the agency, describing each employee as going “to great lengths to try to defend the firewall” designed to block agency staff from interfering with the news judgment and editorial independence of Voice of America.

Pack, a longtime conservative filmmaker, spent $2 million in government funds to investigate journalists employed through USAGM.

In the final weeks of the Trump administration, the District of Columbia’s attorney general accused Pack of funneling more than $4 million to his documentary company through a nonprofit he also runs.