VOA union leader appeals to Director Lobo to stop intimidating security procedures

BBG Watch Commentary

“It’s a New Year, let’s make it the BBG’s best.” – Dick Lobo

IBB Director Richard Lobo

IBB Director Richard Lobo

Imagine if Willis Conover, the legendary Voice of America (VOA) broadcaster whose jazz programs helped to pierce the Iron Curtain, were still alive today and in his retirement tried to visit his old VOA friends at work. He would not be able to move around the building, from which his famous broadcasts originated, without a constant escort following him, even if he wanted to use the restroom.

This is how the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) officials in charge of the BBG’s administrative arm, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) who report to IBB Director Richard Lobo, treat former employees, some of whom have spent decades working for the U.S. international broadcasting agency and had outstanding careers.

Many Broadcasting Board of Governors employees and union leaders from the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812, have log suspected that the retiree escort rule, introduced by the management several years ago, had very little to do with security but rather was designed to intimidate former staffers, including retired union officials who still hold their union positions and need to meet with IBB and VOA staffers. They believe that the rule’s real purpose is to discourage frequent contact by retirees with current employees.

All those who come to the BBG building in Washington, DC, including all employees, have to go through a strict security check. This is necessary and understood. All outside visitors not connected with the agency have to be escorted at all times. That may also be necessary under some circumstances. But if a former employee’s identity is confirmed, the person goes through a thorough security check, is not reported as a threat, and had worked for the agency for decades, what is the point of an escort shadowing a retiree throughout his or her visit to see former colleagues?

Most of these retirees have worked for the agency for many years, passed repeated security checks, held security clearances and are well known throughout the building. They are escorted, but recently hired contractors who are not familiar to most longtime employees, can move around the building without an escort.

Where is the logic?

What a waste of U.S. taxpayers’ money.

What a terrible message to send to current and former employees.

What a terrible impact on employee morale in the agency whose IBB and VOA executives have been rated in numerous Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee surveys as being the worst managers in the federal government.

Verla Wiley, the current Vice President for VOA Radio of the BBG employee union, AFGE Local 1812, has been subjected to this humiliating treatment for years as she visits the BBG building on union business. She retired as an International Radio Broadcaster (IRB) from the English to Africa Branch of VOA’s Africa Division after 39 years. She has continued working with the union after retiring and has been now associated with the agency for 47 years.

The procedure of escorting former employees is intimidating enough, but recently Ms. Wiley was subjected to even more humiliation as she tried to enter the BBG building through the “C” Street lobby entrance.

IBB Director Richard Lobo should realize that this policy as it applies to the treatment of retirees, including Ms. Wiley, is just part of a larger pattern of constant intimidation practiced by senior IBB/VOA executives against current staff employees, contract employees, and even independent outside journalists.

It should not be a surprise to Director Lobo that in this kind of atmosphere encouraged and tolerated by the top management, senior executives abuse their power on a daily basis and are viewed by the majority of employees and the worst managers in the federal government.

Director Lobo recently made a big deal of reopening the newly renovated Health and Wellness Center for BBG employees. This was a good initiative on his part, but if he thinks that this alone is going to improve employee morale, he would be mistaken. He might try touring the building on a regular basis and actually talk/listen to employees.

Director Lobo needs to set an example by taking or recommending actions against executives who are responsible for dismal employee morale, who fire broadcasters without letting them say good bye to their audience of many years, who try to deprive outside journalists of their press credentials and their livelihood, those who threaten outside media critics, and those who level phony accusations against BBG Governors.

Director Lobo can also start by proposing new security procedures that show respect for BBG retirees without weakening security for employees who work in the agency’s Washington building.

Ms. Wiley has described her ordeal in an email sent to International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo, Voice of America Director David Ensor and IBB Director of Security Michael Lawrence.

January 25, 2013

As the AFGE Local 1812 Vice President for VOA Radio, I am continually subjected to unprecedented treatment and institution of actions that are meant to intimidate and dissuade me from entering the Cohen Building located at 330 Independence Ave SW, where the headquarters for Local 1812 is situated.

Sitting center stage in the attempts is the arbitrary ban placed against my ability to enter into and move around the Cohen Building without escort. When that failed to discourage my desire to execute my duties as a union official, additional efforts were made to ensure some level of frustration with regard to my presence in the building, including violative personal searches upon my body.

On January 22, 2013, at approximately 10:00 a.m., I entered the Cohen Building’s “C” Street lobby entrance to go to the union office to perform my duties as VOA Vice President. Upon entrance into the Cohen Building, I went through the magnetometer, took a seat on the sofa in the lobby area, and waited for my escort. Shortly thereafter, a guard approached me and told me that I had to leave the building because the lobby “has been closed down”.

As I walked toward the exit, I looked around for my escort to let him know what I had been told by the security guard that I had to leave the building because of the lobby closure that occurred only after my entrance into the building. There was no reason given by the guards for closing down the “C” street lobby. In order to comply with the instruction given to exit the lobby as a result of its alleged closure, I went outside into sub-freezing weather and waited for the guards to give the “all clear” in terms of my ability to return into the building. Despite any direct notice to me, minutes after I exited the building, I saw several people enter the building. When they did not come back outside, I entered the building, for a second time, so that I could go to the union office. When I passed through the magnetometer, for a second time, the guards offered no explanation for their assertion that the lobby was closed, or their specific contact with me in instructing me to leave the lobby. The conduct of the security personnel and the reasons given for the closure are highly suspect and resulted in my being subjected to questionable behavior for which no credible explanation or reason has been ascertained.

When I walked up to the guard’s desk to obtain a visitor’s badge, I saw my escort waiting for me. My escort said that when he tried to come into the lobby area to get me, he was told by a female guard that “there’s nobody in there”, and “to go around the other way.” When he turned to leave the area, the guard changed her mind and told my escort that he “could come into the lobby area.”

My escort was never told about the lobby closure. Such an omission leaves open the strong possibility that the act was committed to, once again, disrupt my efforts to get into the building.

The BBG alleges that it has a mandatory 2004 policy that union “retirees” must sign in and be escorted around the Cohen Building at all times. However, the alleged policy was not enforced until March 2006 after I became a BBG retiree and began using the “retiree” badge given to me by former security director, John Wybenga, to gain access into the building. By forcing me to sign into the Cohen Building as a visitor in March 2006 and not implementing the escort provision of the policy until June 2006…three months later… BBG was in violation of its own policy. In June 2006 I was informed that I must also be escorted; that also included visits to the restroom, cafeteria, and snack areas.

This latest attempt to harass, provoke and discourage me from entering the Cohen Building is the most recent in a litany of ongoing personal attacks against me. I currently have a U.S. District Court complaint against the agency which demonstrates that the “retiree” policy has presented the opportunity for the commission of harassment, and a security wanding process that involves overly aggressive and offensive security searches. In addition, the security guards have made no secret of the fact that they constantly monitor and follow me around the Cohen Building. This latest attempt also demonstrates the arbitrary insertion of harassment willfully engaged in by certain BBG personnel. An arbitrary shutdown of the lobby of the BBG, a government agency, should not be taken lightly, instead it must be given serious scrutiny.

It has been said that you can judge a society on how it treats its weakest members. The BBG/VOA has been judged as a government agency on how it treats its people in several OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys in which they came in last place. We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin; but no matter how different, we all belong to one human race.

Respectfully submitted,

Verla Wiley

Vice President for VOA Radio AFGE Local 1812

One Comment

  1. Keith Perron says:

    When I visited the VOA in March, from my personal experience I felt security was a bit extreme. As I waited after I cleared, which felt like going though airport security, there were a couple of men who looked North African, which I discovered later were diplomats from some embassy in Washington, DC. When I went though all they did was to check my bag and I moved on. These men were treated with very little respect. They needed to walk though the magnetometer 4 times each. In the process they needed to remove their shoes, belts, coats and wallets. But yet those who looked American only went though once and then waited for their escort. I personally found it disgusting. In dealing with me, the security guards were friendly and professional. But I’m sure if I looked North African or Middle Eastern, they would have treated me the same way they treated these diplomats.

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