WASHINGTON – The U.S. Agency for Global Media has released financial documents showing the agency’s Trump-appointed CEO paid an outside law firm more than $1 million for work that included investigating its own staff.
In a statement Friday, USAGM said it has proactively released the first set of contracts and decision-making documents and would add more records based on multiple requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Under FOIA, the public, news media or others can request records from federal agencies. The agencies may withhold some information under a set of exemptions that include personal privacy and national security.
The 107 pages published by the USAGM this week include correspondence and invoices with McGuireWoods, an outside law firm appointed during Michael Pack’s leadership to investigate USAGM officials and grantees including Voice of America.
Pack resigned from his position Jan. 20, hours after President Joe Biden took office.
The law firm billed USAGM more than $1 million during the three-month period covered in the record release. The total cost could be higher with more invoices expected to be released in the coming weeks.
The use of an outside firm in a no-bid government contract is “highly unusual,” David Seide, senior counsel of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) said.
The nonprofit, set up to protect whistleblowers and which represented more than 20 people at the agency and VOA in recent months, welcomed the release of the documents.
The GAP is among the organizations to have requested documents related to Pack’s time as chief executive.
“We applaud the agency for their recognition of the need for transparency, promptly placing this material in the public domain,” Seide told VOA. “We hope and expect the agency will continue to make such productions.”
The nonprofit Transparency International also described the move as a positive step.
“Generally speaking, I think it is important for the public to fully understand how agencies are operating, how money is being spent, what priorities are the agencies taking,” Gary Kalman, director of Transparency International’s U.S. office, said.
FILE – Michael Pack, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, is seen at his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Sept. 19, 2019. Pack’s nomination was confirmed June 4, 2020.
Records released under the FOIA request showed that McGuireWoods was tasked with investigating laws and regulations, including the firewall that prevents editorial interference, and reviewing social media posts, employee communications, news articles on Pack and the Open Technology Fund, a 2015 Inspector General report, as well as a request for an OIG audit report on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails.
In a March 4 letter to lawmakers and the Offices of Special Counsel and Inspector General, the GAP said the records appeared to show gross mismanagement, waste of taxpayer money, and abuse of authority by the agency’s previous leadership.
The records appeared to show the firm was hired under a sole, no-bid contract without adequate justification, and that no cap was placed on the contract – both of which contravene federal contracting law, GAP’s letter said.
It added that the investigations produced nothing to justify Pack’s decision to place staff on administrative leave, adding that Pack and his team “sought to evade oversight and controls to further a partisan agenda devoid of public benefit.”
A USAGM spokesperson said Friday that the agency has concerns about actions by Pack and his team and has referred the matter to the Office of Inspector General.
“We look forward to fully cooperating with these and other investigations,” Laurie Moy, acting director of public affairs, told VOA.
Pack did not respond to an email sent to his private production company, requesting comment.
In an interview last month, the former CEO defended his actions, saying he found security gaps and bias at the agency.
Critics of his leadership, including agency whistleblowers and members of Congress, had raised concerns over Pack’s actions since the Senate confirmed him to lead the agency in June 2020.
The Office of Special Counsel asked USAGM to conduct investigations into at least two separate whistleblower complaints. The first related to the McGuireWoods contract and the second concerned editorial interference at VOA and alleged abuse of authority. In both cases, the Office of Special Counsel found substantial likelihood of wrongdoing.
VOA program director Kelu Chao, who took over as acting CEO when Pack resigned, has reversed many of her predecessor’s decisions. Chao in 2020 testified as part of a lawsuit about editorial interference by Pack and his aides.
Since Chao’s appointment, USAGM officials who were placed on administrative leave were returned to their former positions; OTF has restarted its rapid response fund that was forced to close last year; the heads of Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks were restored; and boards appointed by Pack in his last month as CEO were dissolved.
The head of VOA’s Urdu language service, Tabinda Naeem, was also returned to her position. USAGM had moved to dismiss Naeem after her division published a video featuring a Joe Biden campaign advertisement that the agency said did not meet editorial standards.
Chao also handed control over approving J-1 visas for foreign journalists to the head of VOA, a position currently filled by former VOA news director Yolanda Lopez. And the agency announced at a town hall for staff last month that it would reinstate the editorial firewall in the federal register after Pack repealed it in October.
Some former officials who took up positions at the agency during the Trump administration say the changes are politically driven.
Elizabeth Robbins said her dismissal as VOA deputy director in January, after only a few weeks in the role, was illegal.
In an interview with the conservative One America News Network, Robbins said the Biden administration was attempting to politicize VOA.
USAGM spokesperson Moy told VOA Friday that Chao used her authority as acting CEO to restore network heads and members of the bipartisan board to each of the agency grantees.
“[Chao] has also restored the wrongfully removed senior executives to their rightful positions, with the exception of one executive who (while welcomed back) instead chose to retire,” Moy said via email.
She added that visa requests are properly vetted and that the agency is “strictly adhering to all federal statutory requirements regarding the hiring of and preferences for U.S. citizens.”
Greater transparency, like the release of USAGM’s records, can play an important role in trust and accountability, Kalman said.
“What happened at VOA raised some questions for folks that were following it about the independence of the agency,” said Kalman, of Transparency International. “Reestablishing that trust by saying, we’re taking a new direction and we’re going to be transparent about some of the issues that were raised in the past, to see how they’re being addressed, I think is critical.”
The USAGM records and future disclosures will be posted to the agency’s electronic reading room.