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'Substantial Likelihood Of Wrongdoing' By VOA Parent Agency, Government Watchdog Says

The headquarters of the U.S. government's premier international broadcaster, Voice of America, in Washington, D.C.
The headquarters of the U.S. government's premier international broadcaster, Voice of America, in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a federal watchdog, disclosed Wednesday that it had found "a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing" at the parent agency of the Voice of America under the leadership of the CEO appointed by President Trump.

Since taking over the U.S. Agency for Global Media, CEO Michael Pack has turned it upside down, sidelining top executives, firing network chiefs, and deep-sixing requests for visa extensions for foreign staffers. Most notably, Pack had two senior political aides with records of strongly pro-Trump ideological statements investigate journalists for perceived anti-Trump bias and push for sympathetic news coverage of the president during the campaign.

The finding is yet another formal and stinging rebuke to Pack's actions, though it is not a final determination. In late November, U.S. Judge Beryl Howell ruled that Pack had acted unconstitutionally in investigating his own journalists on political grounds. She ordered him to stop intervening inside VOA's newsrooms. Suspended executives have separately filed a complaint with the inspector general of the U.S. State Department, which has jurisdiction over the agency.

"It's a significant step, but far from the last one," said David Seide, senior counsel to the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit public interest law firm representing more than 20 whistleblowers at USAGM, VOA and its sister networks. "Our clients have disclosed significant and frankly shocking allegations at this agency. It's gratifying that OSC made this independent judgment."

Karen Tanenbaum, an attorney in the retaliation and disclosure unit of the Office of Special Counsel, sent letters to the whistleblowers informing them of the finding. NPR reviewed two of them to confirm the details. USAGM did not offer comment by the time of publication.

NPR has learned that among the whistleblowers is Steve Herman, VOA's White House bureau chief and perhaps its best-known journalist. Two of Pack's top political aides investigated Herman, claiming he was unfair to Trump and demanding he be reassigned from covering the presidential campaign. The two men, neither of whom has a background in journalism, relied in part on tweets relaying statements from the president's critics. NPR first broke news of that investigation as well as others affecting journalists at the French-to-Africa and the Urdu language services. In the latter case, the USAGM-driven investigation led to the severing of contracts for four journalists and the suspension of an editor.

VOA and the other federally-financed networks under USAGM serve more than 350 million people overseas each week. They are intended to model how independent journalism works, to convey American pluralism by fairly depicting political debate, and also, in regions where a free press is repressed or not financially viable, to provide local journalism.

The Office of Special Counsel's order places Pack in the unusual position of initiating an investigation into allegations of actions that stem from his own directives. Additionally, the order gives him 60 days - past the inauguration date of President-elect Joe Biden, who has already signaled his intention to replace Pack. Nonetheless it requires a sweeping review of Pack's actions.

Tanenbaum said her office had demanded USAGM conduct an investigation of actions since late June of allegations including:

* repeated violations of the statutory and regulatory "firewall" intended to protect the journalistic integrity of the Voice of America's newsroom;

* "gross mismanagement" by USAGM's Pack in firing the presidents of Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the President and CEO of the Open Technology Fund

* sidelining senior USAGM executives; removing the VOA's top standards editor and the executive editor of Radio Free Asia;

* the removal of the chief standards editor at VOA and the executive editor of Radio Free Asia.

* the refusal to authorize the extension of specialized visas for staffers who are foreign citizens, some of whom may have to return to live under regimes hostile to the U.S. government.

According to a person with direct knowledge, visas will expire this month for four VOA journalists who are foreign citizens.

Numerous current and former staffers at VOA and USAGM say they fear Pack will take more actions to damage the agency before he departs. Several senior aides are departing or have already done so, including his chief of staff Emily Newman and Frank Wuco, a former radio talk show conspiracy theorist who previously held other roles inside the Trump administration.

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR Media and Tech Editor Emily Kopp. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.