US Agency for Global Media reinstates employees dismissed under Trump
This article features our Senior Counsel David Seide and client Grant Turner and was originally published here.
The agency overseeing Voice of America has reinstated five whistleblowers who were all fired on the same day last year by Trump officials.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) has returned the employees fired on Aug. 12 by then-CEO Michael Pack, who was dismissed by President Biden just hours after taking office on Jan. 20.
“Deputy Director for Operations [Matt] Walsh, Chief Strategy Officer Shawn Powers, Chief Financial Officer Grant Turner, General Counsel David Kligerman, and Executive Director Oanh Tran have all returned to their positions at the agency,” Kelu Chao, acting CEO of the agency, wrote Wednesday night in a staff email obtained by The Hill.
Chao went on to describe 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.
The agency did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill.
All five had protested management decisions while at USAGM, including interference in Voice of America operations, and filed a whistleblower complaint.
The agency had a rocky few years under the Trump administration and Pack’s leadership, with critics accusing him of politicizing the agency and carrying out acts of retribution against employees he perceived as having an anti-Trump bias.
Pack faced complaints from more than 30 whistleblowers during his tenure.
“Significant problems have befallen the agency since CEO Michael Pack arrived and I have deep concerns about the trajectory USAGM is on,” Turner, one of the whistleblowers, said in September testimony at an oversight hearing held by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“I know many of you share these concerns. Like you, I am worried about the credibility and the goodwill of our networks being destroyed. It has taken literally decades to build this trust with our audiences. Tragically, it can be destroyed far more quickly.”
Pack, a longtime conservative filmmaker, spent $2 million in government funds to investigate journalists employed through USAGM.
And 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.
“This is a repudiation of the Trump administration policies, Mr. Pack, and his enablers,” said David Seide, the attorney who represented USAGM whistleblowers.
But he warned the agency is still a work in progress and will still need to repair relations with its employees.
“To rebuild a reputation takes time,” he said.
Chao referenced that challenge in her email to staff this week.
“The longer I serve in this role, the more I realize how tough the rebuilding task is,” she wrote. “I pledge to continue doing everything I can to support the firewall, editorial integrity, and quality journalism.”
A January speech from then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought front and center the pressure the agency had faced during the Trump administration.
“It’s not fake news for you to broadcast that this is the greatest nation the world has ever known,” Pompeo said.
“I’m not saying ignore our faults. Acknowledge them. But this isn’t the Vice of America, focusing on everything that’s wrong with our great nation. It certainly isn’t the place to give authoritarian regimes in Beijing or Tehran a platform.”