A federal inspector general's investigation has exonerated six government executives who were suspended last year after raising red flags about actions taken by then-President Donald Trump's appointee at the parent agency of the Voice of America.
The State Department inspector general's reports, reviewed by NPR, say U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack and his closest aides appeared to have targeted the executives for reprisal.
The reports suggest a circle of Trump loyalists went searching through the top echelons of the agency's career staff for figures they deemed disloyal. Then they would knock down these employees, even going so far as to use unproven rumors of jeopardizing national security to get them stripped of the security clearances needed for their jobs. Pack also personally hired a high-profile Richmond, Va. law firm to investigate the officials, at a cost to taxpayers of well over $1 million.
As NPR reported last year, political appointees at the agency also embarked on investigations of journalists within Voice of America for anti-Trump bias. Both D.C. and federal courts have held some of the actions were illegal. Five of the executives were revealed to be whistleblowers, as was VOA official Kelu Chao, who now serves as the agency's acting CEO.
"These reports are an important step in holding those responsible for egregious waste, fraud and abuse accountable," says USAGM Chief Strategy Officer Shawn Powers, one of the executives whose security clearance had been suspended and later restored. "They send an important signal that political persecution of civil servants will not be tolerated."
The executives included other top USAGM officials, including the chief financial officer and the general counsel. Along with VOA, the agency funds Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Open Technology Fund, which subsidizes technology to help people living under repressive regimes communicate securely.
As Pack assumed office last summer, he and his top aides took steps to withhold money appropriated by the U.S. Congress to the agency. They also moved to shut down communications with people outside the agency. And, they tried to seize control of the Open Technology Fund. The career executives formally objected to the moves. They also warned that Pack's decision to refuse extensions of specialized visas for the agency's foreign journalists could put those journalists' lives in jeopardy, should they have to return to hostile regimes. Finally, the executives balked at directives by Pack's aides to ignore protocols to stop the spread of COVID-19 among people at agency offices, like wearing masks and social distancing.
Five of the executives were reinstated shortly after President Biden took office and Pack resigned. Among their alleged failings: insufficient action to remedy the agency's past shortcomings on getting authority to conduct security reviews and other security-related matters, some of which first occurred almost two decades earlier. In almost every case, security fell outside the scope of the executive's area of authority.
And the rest of the evidence marshalled against the executives was flimsy, according to the inspector general. Pack did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
A Request For Rumors 'Heard In The Halls'
Late last July, a top Pack aide told the agency's chief risk officer to compile a "risk profile" of several of the senior executives.
USAGM acting vice president for legal compliance and risk, Morvared Namdarkhan, "told him to include any negative information he had heard about the individuals, regardless of whether he could verify the information," according to the inspector general's report on Powers' suspension. "Ms. Namdarkhan told him to add even rumors that he 'heard in the halls'."
Even had the accusations been grounded, they would not have been sufficient to revoke a security clearance, concluded Jeffrey McDermott, the assistant inspector general for the U.S. State Department.
According to the investigation, Emily Newman, who served as Pack's chief of staff, focused her ire on the general counsel, David Kligerman. She was angry he told the Justice Department that Namdarkhan questioned Open Technology Fund employees without their lawyer present - an act that Kligerman suspected might be illegal. Namdarkhan (also known as Mora Namdar) had the internal investigations opened the next day.
David Seide, an attorney with the non-profit Government Accountability Project who represented USAGM Chief Financial Officer Grant Turner, says the investigation's findings were unsurprising.
"What is shocking are [the inspector general's] discovery of the many more ways Pack and his political appointees – while running USAGM for a mere six months – managed to break the law, abuse authority, endanger public health and safety and grossly mismanage the agency," Seide said in a statement.
During his tenure, Pack gave interviews to conservative and pro-Trump news outlets saying he wanted to "drain the swamp" at Voice of America.
The new leadership of USAGM welcomed the findings.
"This decision reaffirms the need for individuals to be able to raise concerns, without fear of retaliation, about unethical management practices that might otherwise go undetected," spokeswoman Laurie Moy said in a statement. "USAGM is fully committed to protecting the rights of whistleblowers within our agency."
Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR media and technology 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.