Secret talks may affect status of Voice of America historic buildings


BBG Watch Commentary

VOA building in Washington, D.C.

VOA building in Washington, D.C.

One of the great things about the Voice of America (VOA) is its location at 330 Independence Avenue, SW in Washington, DC, near the Capitol and within easy access to all Washington area news sources and events. Former BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson, who had resigned earlier this year, wanted to move VOA to an office building somewhere near the Dulles airport. It would have been a foolish idea for a news organization like the Voice of America to give up the best possible real estate in downtown Washington. Mercifully, it died with Isaacson’s departure. In these difficult economic times, US taxpayers are in no mood to pay millions of dollars in relocation costs to support grandiose plans of government officials who are political appointees.
But there may be another potential threat to VOA’s use of the two buildings on Independence Avenue that are owned and maintained by the General Services Administration (GSA). Sources have told BBG Watch that a group known as L88, which describes itself as Government Strategic Operational Asset Investment Program targeting global assets of U.S. Government agencies in partnership with its stable of investment partners and others, has been engaged in secret talks with GSA officials about the buildings used by VOA. The General Services Administration owns and leases over 9,600 buildings nationwide.
BBG Watch has learned that the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Richard Lobo and other top IBB officials know about these talks.
Since these are valuable historic government buildings used by the Voice of America as well as the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, there are legitimate concerns about the outcome of any talks or negotiations.
We would like to know why they are conducted in secret and why other potentially interested parties have not been invited to participate. Are there any real or potential conflicts of interest involving government and/or BBG grantee organizations officials and their current and/or former private businesses, associates, friends, and investments? Will any transaction that may result be open to bids?
In a meeting on March 8, 2012, Board members had approved BBG’s role in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) lease arrangement with the very same investment group L88. The BBG will participate as “co-obligor” in the proposed lease arrangement between RFE/RL and L88 of the RFE/RL headquarters lease in Prague, Czech Republic. The description of the proposed transaction was provided to the Board members by the International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo. There is very little information about the financial exposure of the BBG, and consequently US taxpayers’, in this particular transaction with L88.
BBG and IBB executive staffers like secrecy and avoid public and Congressional scrutiny and oversight as much as possible. That’s way they prefer doing business through the grantee organizations like RFE/RL. They want to push forward with the merger of the grantees without Congressional and public hearings. They have plans to hire a CEO with extensive but still undefined powers who would not be answerable to Congress. And they want to keep eliminating Voice of America programs and jobs since they fall under stricter rules of public scrutiny.
Members of Congress should be asking a lot of questions about the managers running this agency and their plans.
If indeed L88 is now involved in secret talks with GSA about the historic VOA buildings in Washington, DC, Director Lobo has an obligation to share whatever information he has with IBB and VOA employees and to keep them informed if he learns anything new.
If GSA has plans that would affect the ownership and management of this property, this should be an open and transparent process. The public has the right to know. Other potentially interested parties should know as well.
These are not only historic and valuable buildings. They are also very important to the Voice of America and its mission of providing news and information to critical overseas audiences. They are the property of all Americans, as is the Voice of America, its brand name, and its broadcasts. They can’t be disposed of or moved around from one location to another just because one or two political appointees or other officials think it’s a good idea. Government officials have a duty to explain their decisions to the public and to seek public input whenever public institutions, public property or public money are involved.