Federal inquiry details abuses of power by Trump's CEO over Voice of America
On the day after his confirmation as chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media in June 2020, Michael Pack met with a career employee to discuss which senior leaders at the agency and the Voice of America should be forced out due to their perceived political beliefs.
"Hates Republicans," the employee had written about one in a memo. "Openly despises Trump and Republicans," they said of another. A third, the employee wrote, "is not on the Trump team." The list went on. (Firing someone over political affiliation is typically a violation of federal civil service law.)
Within two days, Pack was examining ways to remove suspect staffers, a new federal investigation found. The executives he sidelined were later reinstated and exonerated by the inspector general's office of the U.S. State Department. Pack ultimately turned his attention to agency executives, network chiefs, and journalists themselves.
The report, sent to the White House and congressional leaders earlier this month, found that the Trump appointee repeatedly abused the powers of his office, broke laws and regulations, and engaged in gross mismanagement.
USAGM oversees the Voice of America and other international broadcasters funded by the federal government, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Radio Television Martí. The networks are charged with providing straight news for societies where independent news coverage is either repressed or financially unfeasible and with modeling the value of pluralistic political debate within that coverage.
"It just takes one's breath away."
"This report is remarkable in its breadth and depth and detail of the wrongdoing that was underway at these agencies in the last six months of the Trump administration," says David Seide, an attorney with the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit public interest law firm which has represented more than 30 whistleblowers at USAGM, VOA and its sister networks since Pack took office. "It just takes one's breath away."
The 145-page report independently corroborates many of the whistleblower complaints. It also lends new weight and depth to earlier reporting by NPR, inquiries by a U.S. inspector general and rulings by a federal judge and a local District of Columbia judge.
Taken together, they depict Pack's brief tenure as an ideologically driven rampage through a government agency to try to force its newsrooms and workforce to show fealty to the White House.
Pack punished executives who objected to the legality of his plans, interfered in the journalistic independence of the newsrooms under his agency, and personally signed a no-bid contract with a private law firm to investigate those employees he saw as opposed to former President Donald Trump. The law firm's fees reached the seven figures for work typically done by attorneys who are federal employees.
In Trumpian flourish, Pack promised "to drain the swamp"
In a conversation with the conservative news outlet The Federalist, Pack characterized his moves with a Trumpian flourish: "to drain the swamp, to root out corruption and to deal with these issues of bias." Pack did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.
Pack is a conservative documentarian and former official at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. His appointment was held up for two years in the U.S. Senate over concerns about his highly ideological approach and whether he had been candid over the finances of his business. (His production company ultimately agreed to transfer $210,000 back to a nonprofit that he also controls, which was itself subsequently compelled to dissolve under a legal settlement he reached last year with the D.C. Attorney General's office.)
Pack, a slight man with an unassuming manner, had tight ties to major conservative figures. He briefly led the Claremont Institute in California, which is influential in Republican circles; he previously developed two documentaries for public television that Steve Bannon helped to produce. Bannon later became Trump's campaign manager and chief White House political strategist.
In early 2020, his nomination still languishing, Pack released his documentary about U.S. Justice Clarence Thomas, based on extensive interviews with the jurist and his wife, the conservative activist Ginni Thomas. He reportedly became friends with the Thomases, writing a book with the former White House attorney who helped smooth Thomas' path to confirmation in 1991.
Pack's own prospects for confirmation revived in spring 2020 when Trump's White House attacked the Voice of America, in almost unprecedented fashion. The White House publicly alleged the news service uncritically relayed Chinese propaganda about the nation's efforts to combat the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus.
A litany of abuses substantiated by federal investigation
The inquiry was conducted by three outside consultants hired by USAGM and endorsed by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the agency that investigates federal whistleblower complaints. The report concludes that Pack:
- Violated the independence of journalists working for newsrooms at the Voice of America and other international broadcasting networks funded by the government and "exercised oversight in a manner suggestive of political bias."
- Wrongly retaliated against career executives by suspending their security clearances after they filed whistleblower complaints. Their allegations were later substantiated by the State Department's inspector general's office.
- Engaged in "gross mismanagement and gross waste" when he paid a politically-connected Virginia law firm $1.6 million in agency money to investigate his executives in a confidential, no-bid contract. A former Supreme Court clerk for Thomas, John D. Adams, was the senior partner who oversaw the McGuireWoods contract with Pack at USAGM.
- Imperiled the independence of several of the international networks, politicizing them by stacking their boards with a full slate of ideological appointees all at once. He also abused his powers in trying to make their tenures irrevocable except in the case of a felony conviction.
- Broke privacy laws by releasing dossiers compiled by the law firm, McGuireWoods, on those executives he suspended to five right-wing journalists whom he had appointed to various networks funded by the boards. McGuireWoods strongly advised against releasing the dossiers publicly. They were ultimately made public by a sympathetic member of Congress.
- Sought to prevent the Open Technology Fund from receiving federal funds for three years because of his animus toward the outfit, "rather than a desire to protect the public interest." The fund helped to subsidize the development of Tor and Signal, technologies that let people access the Web and communicate securely and privately, even in repressive countries. Bannon was among those with ties to figures promoting rival technologies that sought greater subsidies from the fund.
- "[P]ut numerous internet freedom projects at risk, including in countries that are State Department priorities" by seeking to block federal dollars from flowing to the tech fund.
Violations found of journalistic independence and the civil workforce's professionalism
Not all of the actions under investigation amounted to an abuse of power, a gross waste of federal funds, or a violation of the law. For example, the inquiry found that it was within Pack's authority to remove the heads of the networks, despite objections and protests.
Even in some of those instances, however, Pack was found to have acted improperly, as when he fired the head of Radio Free Asia and directed her replacement to force her out of her subsequent, contractually protected position of executive editor at the network. "CEO Pack's actions were inconsistent with the statutory mandate that he respect the networks' journalistic integrity and independence," the report states.
Nearly every outfit overseen by the USAGM was affected by his actions — or, at times, his inactions. Pack remained mute when his newly installed VOA leaders demoted a reporter who covered the White House for pressing then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for answers about the January 6th, 2021 siege of the U.S. Capitol; he took no action when the acting chief of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting provided a Trump political aide with a link to its content to distribute to a U.S. audience shortly before the 2020 elections, despite laws preventing such dissemination; and he failed to assign a standards editor for Voice of America after reassigning the longtime news executive for four months.
That last maneuver, the report found, constituted gross mismanagement.
NPR has previously reported on many of the matters under investigation, and some others that did not receive official scrutiny.
Based on exchanges among USAGM staffers, NPR previously reported that McGuireWoods intended to charge hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the $1.6 million billed but stopped invoicing the agency late that fall. Pack was about to lose his perch and his patron, as Joe Biden won election in November. Biden would order Pack to resign as one of his first formal acts in office. A spokesperson for McGuireWoods did not return a detailed message seeking comment.
Pack refused special counsel's authority to order an investigation
The inquiry itself was instigated by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. It received the whistleblower complaints and directed USAGM to conduct the investigation.
In one of his final actions in office, Pack wrote that he did not accept the agency's authority to instruct him to initiate the investigation. He called the agency's structure "unconstitutional" and said of those who lodged complaints against him, "They have an axe to grind." That refusal, too, was seen as a breach of Pack's duties.
The Office of Special Counsel appointed a panel of three outside experts, including the former acting chief of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, a former senior executive of the Export-Import Bank, and a former investigative reporter who has worked for the special counsel's office.
NPR spoke to seven current and former staffers at USAGM and outlets and outfits it funds. Each said the report reflected a climate of crisis, fear and reprisal.
In sum, Pack's seven-and-a-half month stint running the agency exemplified Trump's contempt for the press and for the professional federal workforce that prides itself on nonpartisanship. (Pack echoed Trump's designation of that workforce as the "Deep State.")
Yet the people with whom NPR spoke also, independently, noted this account of Pack's tenure may not represent only a past era.
On May 10, Congressman Andy Ogles, a Republican from Tennessee, introduced legislation to prohibit any federal funding for the Open Technology Fund, as Pack had sought to do. Trump announced his support for Ogles' 2024 re-election bid on the next day.
And the conservative Heritage Foundation has drawn up proposals for whom should be hired at federal agencies, should Trump or another Republican win the White House in 2024.
Among the project's leaders is John McEntee, the former personnel chief in the Trump White House who helped set up the cadre of partisans that formed Pack's inner circle at USAGM.
Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR Deputy Business Editor Emily Kopp. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.