FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
July 8, 2021
Inspector General Clears Six Voice of America Whistleblowers of Wrongdoing
State Department Inspector General Finds Charges Levied by Trump Political Appointees Against Six Senior Executives to be Pretextual, Created to Support Predetermined Decision
WASHINGTON – Government Accountability Project applauds the State Department’s Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) recent vindication of six Senior Executive Service executives of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the overseer of Voice of America (VOA). Government Accountability Project represents Grant Turner, USAGM’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO), one of the cleared executives and a whistleblower.
The six executives had been targeted for termination by USAGM’s then-Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Michael Pack because he deemed them “disloyal.” Pack was President Trump’s political appointee who resigned at President Biden’s request on the day of his inauguration.
Pack started the termination process by revoking the executives’ security clearances (a prerequisite for their jobs) and – because they no longer had security clearances – suspending them indefinitely. Within days of Pack’s exit, USAGM’s new management reinstated the clearances, lifted the suspensions, and returned the executives to their posts.
On June 14, 2021, OIG informed USAGM, CFO Turner, and the other executives that Pack’s suspension of their clearances was unjustified and retaliatory. Given that they had already returned to their jobs, he asked USAGM to consider additional corrective action – including awarding the executives attorney’s fees and other reasonable compensatory damages.
OIG found Pack’s actions unjustified partly because his political staff ordered agency employees to compile dossiers on each executive and told them to include rumors, gossip, and uncorroborated statements “heard in the halls.” OIG rejected the dossiers, saying they were “pretextual and were simply created to support the predetermined decision to suspend the clearances of the individuals.”
One example of retaliation discussed by OIG involved USAGM’s General Counsel (one of the six executives) citing one of Pack’s political appointees, Mora Namdar, for ethics violations. Namdar, an attorney, was Pack’s Senior Advisor and USAGM’s then-acting Vice President for Legal Compliance and Risk. On July 22, 2020, Namdar “inspected” the offices of a USAGM grantee, the Open Technology Fund (OTF), to interview OTF employees, who did not have their lawyers present. Namdar knew OTF and the employees were represented by counsel because USAGM and OTF were then embroiled in a lawsuit in the federal courts (OTF was another Pack target). The next day, the General Counsel advised Namdar and others that she had potentially violated the lawyers’ Rule of Professional Responsibility prohibiting attorneys from contacting directly parties known to be represented by counsel.
Namdar reacted by telling the General Counsel he was “not in a position to comment on the veracity of these claims or what transpired.” Soon afterwards, Emily Newman, Pack’s Chief of Staff, told the General Counsel she was displeased he had alerted officials outside the agency – Department of Justice attorneys – to what Namdar had done. The following day, June 24, Namdar ordered USAGM staff to compile dossiers on the General Counsel and the other executives.
OIG also discovered many unreported instances of gross mismanagement, abuse of authority, endangerment of public health and safety, and violation of law, regulation, and policy, including:
- Disregard of dangers to VOA journalists. Prior to Pack’s arrival at USAGM (in June 2020), the USAGM CEO routinely signed pro forma paperwork renewing J-1 visas of foreign journalists working for VOA in the United States. That stopped under Pack; he refused to renew any J-1 visas.Career management quickly grew alarmed. One targeted executive told Pack’s political appointees the journalists seeking renewal had no job performance or security concerns and faced real danger if they were barred from the United States. One case involved a journalist for VOA in China who was persecuted by the Chinese government and recently had his life threatened. The State Department had approved his visa. But the journalist was unable to fly to the United States until the visa was approved by USAGM.
Pack and his political appointees did not budge. Instead, they took the offensive, for instance, by preparing talking points recommending that Pack call any questions about his refusal to approve or renew J-1 visas “nonsensical.” The talking points further recommended posing the following question to the questioner: “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?”
- Disregard of national security risks. On August 4, 2020, Pack ordered USAGM to publicly release the complete, unredacted version of an Office of Personnel Management Report (OPM) detailing USAGM security failures. The report’s cover page prominently warns in part: “CAUTION – … This report is not to be released to the public or other personnel who do not have a valid ‘need-to-know’ without prior approval of an authorized OPM or agency official.” Soon after publication, one of the six targeted executives expressed serious concern about the report’s public release because it could increase USAGM’s vulnerability to “bad actors.” The concerns were ignored; the OPM report remains in the public domain.
- Disregard of Covid-19 safety guidelines. OIG found that Pack’s political appointees refused to treat pandemic risks seriously. For instance, on August 4, 2020, Chief of Staff Newman sent an email describing the agency policy requiring the wearing of masks as “highly inappropriate.” She stated: “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. . .”
- Willful failure to cooperate. OIG attempted to interview USAGM employees who were obliged to cooperate under USAGM and State Department policies. OIG contacted Dewey and Namdar after the November election to schedule interviews. Both agreed but asked that they be held after they departed federal service to accommodate their schedules. OIG agreed. But after departing federal service, both refused to be interviewed (OIG has no authority to compel interviews from former employees).
Government Accountability Project Attorney David Z. Seide, who represents Grant Turner, said:
OIG is an independent federal investigative and oversight agency. Its findings that Grant Turner and his colleagues were wrongly retaliated against is not surprising. 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.
Contact: Andrew Harman, Communications Director
Phone: (202) 926-3304
Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.