WASHINGTON (CN) — Troubled by reports against the far-right filmmaker who leads the independent U.S. Agency for Global Media, a federal judge pushed the Trump appointee’s lawyer to agree Thursday that the reported conduct is “loathsome.”
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell issued the command while hearing arguments that Michael Pack was installed as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media to turn independent news outlets like Voice of America into White House propaganda machines.
In the month since the case was filed, the number of employees challenging their suspension from the agency under Pack has grown to six, and Judge Howell noted that they have accused Pack of “loathsome public banter,” such as proclaiming that he can “drain the swamp” by turning off air conditioning units at Voice of America’s headquarters and instituting a mask ban.
Pack made the comments in a podcast interview this past August as the nation had lost at least 180,590 lives to Covid-19, and most parts of the country were suffering severe heat waves.
Justice Department attorney Michael Knapp denied that Pack made such comments, saying he believed Pack’s reply to the man interviewing him had been taken out of context. Pack only offered a “we’ll see about that” in response to a questioned framed by the man interviewing him, Knapp said.
While he did not agree with Howell that the comments were loathsome, as described in the declaration by distressed employees, the lawyer granted that it would be troubling if Pack’s comments were found to be true.
“Your honor, I will concede that it would be troubling for an agency head to wish ill and to wish harm on its employees,” Knapp said.
“I agree, that would be a terrible thing; Mr. Knapp, I want you to find out whether he said that,” said Howell, who is an Obama appointee.
Representing the employees, Gibson Dunn attorney Lee Crain argued chiefly about standing Thursday, asserting that the perception of Voice of America as a biased outlet can hurt the reputations of journalists who work there.
He noted as an example that certain of his clients had been disinvited from international meetings and conferences based on the new perception of USAGM and Voice of America under Pack’s leadership.
Crain’s co-counsel Zainab Ahmad spoke to the length of time journalists need to establish true credibility, noting her clients would have sought work at credible, independent outlets before subjecting themselves to political oversight of their editorial content.
“The fact that they may end up working or have on their resumes, a media outlet that’s determined to be state wide propaganda, that’s very leadership seems comfortable with categorizing as something very close to state-run propaganda is the point of reputation damage from which they can’t recover,” Ahmad said.
But Howell seemed unconvinced an individual reputation would be affected by the reputation of an employer.
“I have to say the concern that I have about expanding the reputational-harm standing … position that the plaintiffs are asserting here is that … government employees could sue the agency they’re working because of decisions made by a presidentially nominated, Senate-confirmed head, that in the employee’s view requires career civil servants to save the agency against the better judgment of a politically-appointed leadership,” Howell said.
She added: “And I have great concern that your reputational harm, or at least the original five plaintiffs, would draw the courts into giving standing and hearing arguments about what helps or harms the agency’s reputation.”
The employees in the Voice of America case added their sixth named plaintiff in an amended complaint filed Wednesday. Kelu Chao, with more than 40 years under her belt at Voice of America, describes in the filing how her work has been impacted since Pack’s 53-38 Senate approval to the post in June. Among other things, the CEO has allegedly requested to sit in on editorial meetings and direct journalistic content.
The employees moved to enjoin Pack’s policies at Thursday’s hearing.
Judge Howell directed the parties to submit supplemental briefs on standing issues and explore whether Chao’s claims are precluded from litigation by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 — a law criminalizing discrimination against federal employees. Those briefs are due to the court next week.
Howell is the same judge who stamped House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry as legitimate last year.
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