Business class plane travel and housing allowances for Korn's favorites at RFE/RL raise questions
BBG Watch has learned that two of the resigning Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) President and CEO Steven Korn’s closest deputies — Vice President of Content, Distribution, and Marketing Julia Ragona, and Vice President of Administration Dale Cohen — recently flew business class from Prague to attend a Broadcasting Broad of Governors (BBG) meeting in Washington, DC.
Business class plane travel by RFE/RL executives raises question because their institution is fully (100%) supported by a grant from the BBG, which comes from the U.S. Congress and U.S. taxpayers. Normally, institutions that receive federal grants must abide by the provisions of the Fly America Act, which forbids the use of first or business class plane travel that is paid for by the U.S. government.
There are a few exceptions (health reasons, no other tickets being available for urgent travel on government business, a few others), but according to our sources, these exceptions may not apply to Ragona’s and Cohen’s recent business class flight from Prague to Washington.
We have learned from our sources within the BBG administration in Washington that Ragona and Cohen may refund the difference between economy plane tickets and their business class tickets, but even in this case U.S. taxpayers may be taken for a ride because almost nobody these days buys a full-fare coach (Y – Class) plane ticket, as most economy tickets are deeply discounted.
We would like to know why business class plane tickets were bought in the first place with U.S. taxpayers’ money and who authorized their purchase? How much money did U.S. taxpayers lose on this expensive travel by Julia Ragona and Dale Cohen? The trip report they gave to their senior staff appeared to have been full of misleading statements that were later refuted.
Will someone also review their previous RFE/RL travel? If U.S. taxpayers will receive refunds for any tickets that may have been inappropriately purchased at RFE/RL, will the difference be calculated from the price of the full Y-Class economy ticket or from the price of discounted economy class tickets normally sold by the airlines?
Ragona and Cohen had ignored previous BBG Watch requests for comments about their plane travels and other issues, but we would be happy to publish their responses if they are provided to us. Ragona and Cohen, along with Korn, were responsible for the brutal firing and treatment of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow which outraged many Russians. Those condemning their actions included Lyudmila Alexeeva, the chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group who witnessed the operation, during which RFE/RL security guards were used to bar journalists from their office and to prevent them from saying good bye to their audience.
We also heard of financial irregularities at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which the RFE/RL Audit Committee, headed by BBG Governor and RFE/RL Board Chairman Dennis Mulhaupt, may soon be looking into.
We hope that Governor Mulhaupt will call a meeting of the RFE/RL Audit Committee sooner rather than later, so that BBG members can still question Steven Korn before he leaves his job on January 25. However, he previously refused to provide answers requested by the BBG Strategy and Budget Committee members. We are not holding our breath that he would cooperate this time.
Korn, whose letter of resignation was accepted by the BBG for causing one of the greatest crises in U.S. international broadcasting (He cited personal reasons for leaving.), took extremely good care of his closet deputies, whom he promoted or hired after forcing out several veteran RFE/RL managers he dismissively called “old white guys.” He also fired some of the best independent journalists in Russia so that Masha Gessen, his disastrous choice to run the Russian Service, could bring in her own team of far less qualified associates.
He gave his favorites fancy titles and gave himself the authority to determine their expensive housing allowance, which enabled him to reward them without considerably increasing their salaries. Large salary increases for individuals might have raised questions from BBG members and RFE/RL auditors.
According to BBG sources, Korn offered Masha Gessen $200,000 per year, which includes a salary of $145,000 and $55,000 in housing allowance. Gessen appeared to have already been living in Moscow at the time when she was hired by Korn and, according to press reports, holds a dual Russian and American citizenship. Gessen is the best compensated language service director in the history of RFE/RL, sources also tell BBG Watch.
We wonder how Mr. Korn justified giving the reported $55,000 in housing allowance to someone who already lives in Moscow and presumably already owns or rents her own house or an apartment.
That’s a lot of U.S. taxpayers’ money to be giving away as a bonus to someone for watching without any protest the firing of dozens of outstanding Radio Liberty journalists, including employees with disabilities, hiring her own friends and associates in their place, destroying employee morale, alienating the entire human rights and opposition community, and losing Radio Liberty’s reputation and most of its audience in Russia.
In Dec. 2011, six months after Korn took over, he added this into the company Handbook. The last paragraph (emphasis added) is new:
5.12.2 Amount of Allowance and Conditions for Payment
184.108.40.206 Maximum Allowance
The current maximum monthly housing allowance entitlement is based on each employee’s recognized number of eligible dependents residing with the employee:
Single rate $1,100
One dependent $1,300
Two or three dependents $1,500
Four or more dependents $1,700
This subsection 220.127.116.11 does not apply to employees who are part of the Senior Executive Service, whose housing allowances are determined by the President on a case-by-case basis. The President’s housing allowance shall be determined by the RFE/RL Board of Directors.
A full and independent investigation of RFE/RL financial, human relations, and administrative practices is urgently needed in addition to any review now being conducted at the request of the BBG by the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Deputy Director Jeff Trimble.