Longtime Execs at Low Employee Morale USAGM Against Former Short-Time CEO

FILE - The U.S. Agency for Global Media logo at Voice of America, in Washington, D.C., Nov. 22, 2019. (VOA)

USAGM Watch Commentary

USAGM Watch offers a selection of links to media articles and official U.S. government documents illustrating the fight of longtime executives in the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), known for its record low employee morale under their watch during the past decade, against former Trump-appointed short-time (eight months) agency CEO Michael Pack who had accused them of mismanagement–charges which they have denied. They had accused Pack of retaliating against them and were vindicated, according to reports, by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), at least with in connection with the charges which led to some of them being suspended from their federal government positions. They were reinstated by the current USAGM Acting CEO Kelu Chao almost immediately after the Biden Administration took office.

The OIG report about the investigation of their case has not been made public to see if any of them may bear any responsibility for many past management and programming scandals and record low employee morale ratings reported over many years. Some of the executives who fought with Pack have served at the agency for several decades, with many years in senior management positions; others were hired in the last several years.

Pack’s departure and the return of most of members of the old management team did not put an end to news of bad leadership at USAGM, but with a few exceptions, not from the most active media allies of the formerly suspended executives.

Reports of new scandals at the agency, which the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had described in 2013 as “practically defunct to be able to tell a message around the world,” have emerged in recent weeks in some media outlets, including charges from independent American and Ethiopian journalists that the Voice of America Horn of Africa Service was supporting the government of Ethiopia, which is being accused by human rights groups of genocide.

Some of the leaders of the current USAGM management team have occupied various executive positions before and after 2013. They hired and promoted many current managers and some of the editors and reporters.

Less than two weeks ago, Russian and Western journalists who criticize the authoritarian government in Russia have charged that the VOA Russian Service was repeating Vladimir Putin’s propaganda and harming independent Russian media outlets like Meduza.

Similar charges against the VOA and USAGM management have been made in recent months and years by independent Chinese and Iranian journalists and human rights activists, as well as by representatives of Chinese-American, Iranian-American and Cuban-American communities.

A VOA News English-language report last week about massive protests in Cuba, which was a likely used in translation by some of VOA’s foreign language services, repeated, without challenge from the accused, Cuban regime propaganda against the protesters and against Cuban-Americans. The VOA report also failed to quote critical comments from members of Congress.

Considering the lack of access to the OIG report to see if past shortcomings and scandals under the watch of some of the members of the past and current management teams were explored even if their suspension was deemed unjustified, we thought that the best way to assess this issue is by letting our readers review various media reports, Michael Pack’s recent op-ed in The Washington Examiner, and some of the U.S. government documents made public earlier by Pack, which his critics within the agency did not want to see released.

We start with the Voice of America’s VOA News English-language report and Pack’s op-ed in The Washington Examiner, followed by links to other related-material.

It would have been extremely useful, as well as being in the public interest, to have access to the OIG report, but it has not been released.

Whatever anyone may think of Michael Pack and his actions during his brief stay at USAGM, the Voice of America report does not, in our view, meet the VOA Charter balance requirements in a similar manner that the recent VOA report about Cuba protests failed to provide a response from the Cuban demonstrators and from the Cuban-Americans to accusations made against them by officials of the communist regime in Havana. The VOA report extensively covered these accusations and gave the Cuban regime the last word. Nowhere in the VOA report was the Cuban government described as being communist or brutal in its violations of human rights.

It is our view that everyone, including Cuban demonstrators and Cuban-Americans deserves a decent and honest reporting from the taxpayer-funded Voice of America in the $800-million U.S. Agency for Global Media in accordance with the VOA Charter, which is U.S. law. Seeking and presenting an opposing point of view, especially when criticism is directed against American citizens or recent immigrants, should be mandatory for all Voice of America news reports, all of which are paid for by all U.S. taxpayers representing all political affiliations or not identifying with any party.


US Government Media Whistleblowers Cleared of Wrongdoing


July 08, 2021 07:21 PM

A U.S. government watchdog has cleared six senior officials at the government’s independent media agency of wrongdoing when they protested last year that the agency’s chief, appointed by former President Donald Trump, was attempting to politicize news operations.

The inspector general at the U.S. State Department recently concluded that Trump administration officials including Michael Pack had unlawfully retaliated against the six, five of whom have been reinstated under President Joe Biden while a sixth retired.

Pack at the time was chief executive officer of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees five networks: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.

Legally protected

The inspector general concluded that the six officials were protected under U.S. law as whistleblowers when they raised concerns about Pack’s actions. Pack last August suspended their security clearances, a prerequisite for their jobs, and placed them on administrative leave. He said his actions were aimed at restoring “respect for the rule of law in our work.”

Lawyers for five of the officials, Robert Litt and Mark Zaid, said the inspector general determined that Pack’s actions were “without a legitimate basis.”

“These official findings constitute a complete vindication of these six officials and entirely clears their record,” the lawyers said in a statement.

Pack’s contentious six-month tenure as the USAGM chief ended January 20 when Biden sought and received his resignation within hours of his inauguration.

Kelu Chao, the Biden-appointed acting USAGM chief, quickly reappointed five of the officials: Chief Financial Officer Grant Turner, Chief Strategy Officer Shawn Powers, General Counsel David Kligerman, Deputy Director for Operations Matt Walsh and Executive Director Oanh Tran. The sixth official, Marie Lennon, opted to retire.

David Seide, a lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection organization that represented Turner in the complaint against Pack, said that Pack and his Trump-appointed allies, during their tenure at USAGM, “managed to break the law, abuse authority, endanger public health and safety, and grossly mismanage the agency.”

Visa renewals denied

The Government Accountability Project accused Pack of disregarding the dangers to foreign journalists working for VOA in the United States by not signing pro forma paperwork to renew their J-1 visas to enter the U.S., as had routinely been done for years by previous agency leaders.

The watchdog group said one VOA journalist in China was persecuted by the Chinese government and his life was threatened. The State Department had approved his visa, the watchdog group said, but Pack refused to sign off, posing a question for critics of his action: “Why are non-U.S. citizens being brought to the U.S. to report on ‘significant American thought and institutions’ back to the rest of the world?”

VOA employs dozens of foreign journalists, many of them hired for their expertise and knowledge of their homelands and the news topics that readers, listeners and viewers overseas most want to know about.

Pack, a conservative filmmaker, was named by Trump to head USAGM in mid-2018. In the face of opposition from Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans, his nomination languished in the Senate for two years, but he won Senate confirmation in June 2020 and assumed leadership of the agency shortly thereafter.




Beyond bias

by Michael Pack 

July 15, 2021 11:00 PM


Although I was only in office for eight months, and the media had rarely covered my agency over the previous decade, I garnered vast media attention. My goal was simply to return this agency to fulfilling its legally mandated mission to tell America’s story and promote American ideals, such as freedom and democracy, worldwide. There was bipartisan agreement that the agency had lost its way, straying from its mission and beset by scandals. This led the Obama administration and Congress to create the new position of Senate-confirmed CEO, of which I was the first.


To be fair, it wasn’t just NPR and the Washington Post; their colleagues at the New York Times, CNN, Politico, and the rest followed suit with identical coverage, just somewhat less frequently. 

Every new initiative of my administration was attacked, with the implication that it was part of a Trump administration conspiracy to turn these broadcasters into propagandists for Trump, a manifestly impossible task even if Trump had wanted to do it, which he did not. Our only goal was simply to ensure our broadcasters followed the law.


But, these journalists did their work with a willingness to print or broadcast what they knew to be false or, at best, distorted. The examples are numerous, and many concerned misleading and outright false statements about our policies, errors that my communications team painstakingly corrected to reporters, only to be ignored.


For example, he mentioned one employee’s messy divorce settlement, and another’s dispute with his father resulting in a temporary restraining order. In three cases, they broke down and cried upon reading the pieces. A young man was unable to work that day or the next. Not only were they mortified that their families would read the stories, but they knew that future employers would Google them and retrieve these salacious stories that have nothing to do with their work or that of USAGM. 




A Report Clears Federal Officials Who Were Suspended By A Trump Appointee Over VOA 

July 10, 202 16:00 AM ET

By David Folkenflik

A federal inspector general’s investigation has exonerated six government executives who were suspended last year after raising red flags about actions taken by then-President Donald Trump’s appointee at the parent agency of the Voice of America. 

The State Department inspector general’s reports, reviewed by NPR, say U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack and his closest aides appeared to have targeted the executives for reprisal.





Opinion: The Voice of America whistleblowers have been vindicated

Opinion by the  Editorial Board

July 13, 2021 at 3:07 p.m. EDT127

The State Department’s Office of Inspector General has determined that six federal employees in the agency that oversees Voice of America were wrongly targeted for termination from their jobs by the Trump administration. Unjustified and retaliatory was the assessment of the government watchdog. The findings don’t come as a big surprise — five of the employees had already been returned to their jobs after President Biden took office — but they nonetheless stand as a stark reminder of the havoc caused to this important news agency by the Trump administration and of the even greater damage that would have occurred had Donald Trump been reelected.



In an e-mail sent to USAGM staff on February 17, 2021, longtime Voice of America executive and current USAGM Acting CEO Kelu Chao wrote:

I am beyond pleased to announce that Deputy Director for Operations Matt Walsh, Chief Strategy Officer Shawn Powers, Chief Financial Officer Grant Turner, General Counsel David Kligerman, and Executive Director Oanh Tran have all returned to their positions at the agency. They – along with former colleague Marie Lennon – went to great lengths to try to defend the firewall, which serves as the foundation for USAGM’s nonpartisan mission, including the objective journalism of our networks. I pledge to continue doing everything I can to support the firewall, editorial integrity, and quality journalism. 

I’m also pleased to announce that Deputy CFO John Barkhamer has returned to his position at the agency as well. John resigned out of principle during the previous CEO’s tenure. He took a stand for what’s right, as did all of our returning colleagues. I know everyone will join me in extending a warm welcome back to all of them.