Federal watchdog says “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” at US broadcasting agency

In June, an ally of Steve Bannon and conservative filmmaker appointed by President Donald Trump took over as the head of the United States Agency for World Media (USAGM), a large international network of news agencies funded and operated by the United States government. .

Hours after introducing himself to employees, new CEO Michael Pack served four senior officials. He then banned visas for some foreign journalists and began investigating reporters at the agency for alleged anti-Trump bias. In October, he announced he was removing the agency’s regulations.firewall”- long-standing internal policies aimed at protecting the editorial independence of the agency’s journalists from political interference from the government.

Critics have accused Pack of abusing his power to transform US state news agencies, whose mission is to disseminate factual and impartial information to people living in countries where press freedom is either severely restricted or non-existent. , in propaganda material favorable to Trump.

Although Pack and his team did not carry out a pro-Trump plan, a federal watchdog found the accusations of blatant mismanagement to be credible.

In letters to 11 whistleblowers on Wednesday evening, the US Office of Special Advocates (OSC) – a government investigative and prosecution body – revealed it had discovered “a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” at USAGM, which oversees four media organizations: Voice of America, Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.

With the help of Government responsibility project (GAP), which represents more than 20 current and former USAGM employees, 11 whistleblowers have made specific complaints to the OSC in recent months.

They included allegations that the USAGM leadership “repeatedly violated the Voice of America (VOA) firewall” and “engaged in gross mismanagement and abuse of authority.” In addition, whistleblowers claimed that the leadership “pressured career staff to illegally reuse … funds and programs allocated by Congress without notifying Congress.”

Wednesday evening, The OSC has responded to these and other allegations, noting that what the whistleblowers were alleging appeared to be true.

“The OSC discovered a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing based on the information you submitted in support of your allegations,” wrote Karen Tanenbaum, counsel in the OSC’s Retaliation and Disclosure Unit.

However, the OSC gives any offending body – in this case, the UASGM – 60 days to conduct its own investigation and respond to complaints. It is only at the end of this investigation that the OSC will make a final decision. “This remains an open matter under investigation until the agency’s final report is forwarded to the president and Congress,” Tanenbaum concluded.

Still, GAP senior lawyer David Seide, who represents whistleblowers, believes the letters signal a quick win for his clients. “The conduct of [USAGM] is shocking, and we’re happy that an independent agency agrees with us, ”Seide told me in an interview.

However, it is not clear whether Pack and other agency executives will face real sanctions during their tenure. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to fire Pack, and the 60 days the USAGM must respond is over the time remaining until Biden’s inauguration. So it is likely that Pack and his team will leave government before receiving reprimands.

But Seide and its customers believe it’s more than just misconduct on Pack’s part. It’s about protecting the culture of an agency with the difficult task of reporting the news independently and fiercely while it’s on the federal payroll. “There is an accounting to be done here for the lessons learned,” Seide said. “It’s really a work in progress.”

What can result from all of this, then, is a bunch of congressional hearings on how best to oversee the USAGM and an uphill battle in Senate confirmation over who Biden chooses to replace Pack.

In the meantime, whistleblowers sense an imminent victory. “We are all very encouraged by the response from the OSC and hope that USAGM takes it seriously,” one whistleblower told me, who spoke on condition of anonymity for confidentiality reasons.