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Trump allies dismissed at VOA as Biden administration names new leadership

Trump appointees had pushed to fire employees even after Biden was sworn in as president.
The Voice of America building in Washington on July 13, 2020.Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration moved quickly on Thursday to name new leadership at Voice of America and other U.S.-funded media, replacing a Trump ally with a news editor he had recently demoted.

In its first full day in office, the Biden administration dismissed the director of Voice of America, Robert Reilly, and his deputy, Elizabeth Robbins, and replaced them with experienced journalists with long careers at VOA and other government-funded networks, according to a statement from the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees the media outlets.

Reilly was replaced by Yolanda Lopez, a news editor who will serve as acting director at VOA. Reilly had just days ago reassigned Lopez after one of the journalists under her supervision shouted questions at then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a Jan. 11 event at Voice of America headquarters.

Pompeo had given a speech and sat for a question and answer session afterward with Reilly, but reporters were not given a chance to pose questions. When one VOA reporter, White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara, tried to ask questions, Reilly shouted at her, according to a recent protest letter from VOA journalists. Hours later, Widakuswara was kicked off the White House beat by Reilly.

Reilly, a conservative commentator, is the author of such books as "Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything."

Even after Joe Biden was sworn in as president on Wednesday, Robbins and another former Trump administration political appointee at the agency, John Jaggers, continued efforts to try to fire several employees on Thursday, according to David Seide, a lawyer representing the employees.

The two pushed to remove the staff members even though the Biden administration had issued instructions to suspend any personnel actions or proceedings at VOA and other networks.

Shortly after midnight early on Thursday, four employees received a letter from Jaggers telling them that they were being removed "as of the date of this letter," Seide said, who shared excerpts of the document with NBC News.

The new leadership at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which had already formally taken the helm late on Wednesday, quickly rescinded the letters on Thursday, Seide said.

Jaggers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As of about 1 p.m. on Thursday, more than 24 hours after Biden was inaugurated, Elizabeth Robbins sent an email to one employee telling them that an administrative hearing related to their possible removal was about to go forward with or without their attendance.

"It’s another example of petty vindictiveness that is still amazing," Seide said.

Robbins told NBC News that she believed she was following federal regulations in pursuing the removal of an employee who had allegedly violated the terms of their employment. If the proceeding had gone ahead, it would have been difficult for the new management of VOA to reverse because it would have been held up under federal rules, according to Robbins.

When Robbins was told by the new management that she was being fired, she responded that such a move would be illegal, citing recently adopted legislation on VOA’s governance, Robbins said.

Her work email was then shut off and she was escorted out by security, Robbins said.

The director of VOA, Reilly, also contended his sacking was illegal and he too was escorted out of the building, she said.

Robbins said her removal was “politically motivated” and meant to suppress alleged whistleblower complaints by some employees of VOA.

The Biden administration named Kelu Chao, who has worked for nearly 40 years at VOA as a journalist and manager, as acting CEO of VOA’s parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Brian Conniff, who held senior management positions at the agency and was president of the U.S.-funded Middle East Broadcasting Networks, was named as her deputy.

Chao replaced Michael Pack, a controversial Trump appointee who was accused by lawmakers and press freedom groups of undermining editorial independence at VOA and other outlets. A federal judge had recently barred Pack from making personnel decisions at VOA and other USAGM broadcasters. Pack named Reilly as director of VOA only weeks before the Biden administration was due to take over.

Pack was asked to step down shortly after Biden was inaugurated Wednesday at noon and he announced his resignation before 2 p.m. EST.