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Federal watchdog finds 'substantial likelihood of wrongdoing' by Trump appointees overseeing Voice of America

The federal watchdog's findings mark the latest rebuke of the Trump-appointed CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, Michael Pack.
U.S. Agency for Global Media chief executive Michael Pack.
U.S. Agency for Global Media chief executive Michael Pack.U.S. Agency for Global Media

WASHINGTON — A federal watchdog agency has found "a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing" by Trump administration appointees who oversee the Voice of America and other U.S.-funded media outlets.

The finding from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent government agency charged with safeguarding federal employees' rights, marks the latest rebuke of Michael Pack, who President Donald Trump appointed to run the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the parent agency to VOA and other broadcasters.

A federal judge last month ordered Pack to stop interfering in the newsrooms of VOA and other media outlets and found that he had jeopardized the First Amendment rights of journalists that his office had targeted for investigation. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and press freedom groups have blasted Pack over his actions since he took over in June, accusing him of undermining the broadcasters' editorial independence and defying congressional authority.

After reviewing allegations from current and recent employees, the Office of Special Counsel wrote to the whistleblowers Wednesday saying it had demanded Pack and the U.S. Agency for Global Media conduct an investigation into the allegations.

NBC News obtained one of the letters, which was signed by Karen Tanenbaum, an attorney in the retaliation and disclosure unit of the Office of Special Counsel.

The long list of allegations from the whistleblowers includes accounts of Pack and his deputies violating the legal "firewall" meant to protect the editorial independence of VOA and the other media outlets under his agency, including Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The whistleblowers also alleged that Pack and other officials "illegally repurposed, and pressured career staff to illegally repurpose, congressionally appropriated funds and programs without notifying Congress," and disrupted media operations and endangered the safety of foreign national employees by refusing to renew their U.S. visas, according to the letter.

The whistleblowers include Steve Herman, a veteran reporter and VOA's White House bureau chief, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Pack's aides, who do not have backgrounds in journalism, conducted an investigation into Herman's reporting and compiled a dossier alleging Herman was biased in his coverage of Trump and in his social media posts. NPR first reported the investigation.

According to the letter, the finding was not a final determination. Pack and USAGM have 60 days to report back to the Office of Special Counsel. By that time, President-elect Joe Biden, who has vowed to replace Pack, will be in office.

David Seide, who represents more than 20 whistleblowers at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, VOA and other U.S.-funded media, called the Office of Special Counsel's findings "very positive," as he said it represents an independent assessment that reinforces the federal court's recent ruling.

"It's another confirmation that there are bad things going on at the agency," said Seide, senior counsel at the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit that represents government whistleblowers.

Seide said he hoped the finding by the Office of Special Counsel will "have a deterrent effect because it goes a long way to holding individuals accountable."

He added, "It's not a secret that the CEO of the agency is the source of what's gone on. But he's been enabled by a variety of assistants, some who recently left the agency and some who remain."

The USAGM did not respond to requests for comment.

Founded during World War II, Voice of America is meant to offer an example of independent, accurate journalism to foreign audiences and to provide a fair and unvarnished portrait of American society and political debate.

VOA and the other federally-funded networks under USAGM serve an estimated audience of more than 350 million people around the world. The other foreign-language services are in part designed to provide quality, independent journalism in countries that lack a free press.