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US Watchdog Vindicates Voice of America Whistleblowers

Six senior executives at the state-run media entity Voice of America lost their security clearances and their jobs after reporting their Trump-appointed leader and others for misconduct. A new audit says they did nothing wrong.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Attorneys for six employees of Voice of America who complained that the independent state-run media service had become a propaganda arm of the Trump White House touted the release Thursday of a report from the U.S. inspector general that clears them of any wrongdoing.

“The employees can now say they were victims of whistleblower retaliation, and the OIG, a nonpartisan, independent organization agreed,” Government Accountability Project attorney David Z. Seide said in an interview. 

Seide represents Grant Turner, one of the Voice of America whistleblowers who suffered retaliation after complaining about perceived misconduct on the part of Michael Pack, the right-wing documentary filmmaker tapped by former President Donald Trump CEO of U.S. Agency for Global Media, Voice of America's parent company.

Accusations that Pack was undermining the network’s independence were rampant upon Pack's installation in June 2020, leading a federal judge to enjoin him that November from influencing personnel actions against VOA journalists or editors.

The injunction came too late, however, for Turner and five other VOA senior executives — Matthew Walsh, Shawn Powers, David Kligerman, Hoang Oanh Tran and Marie Lennon — all of whom were promptly stripped of their security clearances and suspended after reporting Pack, Emily Newman, Mora Namdar and other Trump-appointed officials for misconduct.

“Journalists must be free to write, report, publish, and broadcast stories about their outlet’s sponsors, advertisers, and even publishers because the credibility of a news organization is its business model,” the group wrote in an ensuing federal complaint. “Defendants have chosen to disregard that principle entirely.”

Describing some partisan breaches they observed, the whistleblowers noted that the agency had refused under Pack’s tenure to renew visas for foreign journalists funded by USAGM, attempted to dismantle the firewall that protected Voice of America from political interference, disregarded Covid-19 safety guidelines and misused funds

Marred by scandals, Pack resigned at the request of President Joe Biden on Inauguration Day. New brass at VOA swiftly returned the whistleblower employees to their posts, reinstating clearances and lifting suspensions. 

The Office of the Inspector General at the State Department does not make its reports of whistleblower investigations public, but Turner's attorneys summarized Thursday's findings, which were given to them and to the Voice of America's new management.  

The OIG found that yanking the employees’ security clearances wasn’t justified, though Pack spent $2 million to $4 million in agency funds for a private law firm to investigate the employees and sift through all of their emails. 

“There was a whole range of potential management issues that they identified, but it’s things on the level of: you were slow in reviewing this product,” said Seide. “There were no smoking guns of any kind. It was a colossal waste of money and a gross misuse of taxpayer funds.”

Mark Zaid, an attorney representing another one of the employees, also noted how the OIG found that the actions of Pack and his associates were all pretextual.

Pack alleged for one that the employees were improperly granted security clearances, and that this problem could only be rectified by suspending those clearances. The problem was that 1,400 employees at USAGM had security clearances, but only the six senior executives were told that their clearances needed to be suspended.

“They were going to go that route regardless, so they were trying to find things against their employees,” Zaid said in an interview. “They were looking for dirt when none existed. They relied on political appointees to come up with preordained results.”

The OIG report details another example where a reporter based in China who was being persecuted and threatened by the Chinese government was unable to fly to the United States because Pack refused to renew his J-1 visa. 

Pack called any questions about his refusal to approve J-1 visas “nonsensical.”

In addition to Pack’s public release of an unredacted report detailing USAGM’s security failures, the audit cites an email during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in which fellow Trump appointee Newman called the agency's policy requiring masks “highly inappropriate.”

“I will not clear anything that includes such language, and no one is authorized to do so, nor to negotiate terms related to so-called ‘enforcement’ of mask or social distancing. ... I want to ensure that we’re erring on the side of bringing back staff as quickly as possible,” Newman said. 

Pack faced complaints from more than 30 whistleblowers during his tenure. 

“This again demonstrated Trump loyalists trying to undermine the mission and professionalism of an agency when it didn’t align with their views,” Zaid said. 

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