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Voice of America CEO Accused Of Fraud, Misuse Of Office All In One Week

Jan 9, 2021
Originally published on January 9, 2021 9:10 am

Updated at 7:35 p.m. ET

Fresh crises and fresh challenges confront the Trump-appointed CEO of the parent of Voice of America, even with less than two weeks left of the Trump presidency.

To start, the Attorney General of the District of Columbia this week accused U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack of illegally funneling more than $4 million to his private documentary company through a not-for-profit that he also controls.

Then, five recent chiefs of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty - appointed under Democratic and Republican administrations - jointly warned President-elect Joe Biden that Pack poses "a long-term threat to the credibility and professionalism of the five networks" he oversees.

And now Pack is now being accused of trying to propagandize the Voice of America by a group of whistleblowers. They take exception to a planned appearance by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at VOA's Washington headquarters on Monday, just nine days before the Biden administration begins.

Pompeo will soon be out of his job. And it's expected Pack will be replaced promptly as well. But he has sought to outlast his time in office by burrowing himself and conservative allies into boards that will steer Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. The not-for-profit broadcasters are all funded by the federal government through USAGM.

Those networks, along with VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, collectively reach more than 350 million people across the world each week. They historically have demonstrated American pluralism by providing balanced coverage of news events and robust political debate, regardless of how it reflects on current government officials. The broadcasters are also intended to serve the citizens of nations which do not allow journalists to operate freely.

Through an associate, Pack declined earlier this week to comment on the suit filed by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine. The associate said Friday that Pack was not available to comment on the other developments.

Pack has thrust his agency on a path of tumult, pursuing an agenda that appears to prize loyalty to President Trump and his policies over the values that, by law, the federal broadcasters are supposed to espouse.

Already, two judges have ruled that Pack acted illegally in office. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates federal whistleblowers' complaints, concluded that he probably did so in a separate instance. Pack has instigated investigations of journalists for purported anti-Trump bias; withheld visa extension for journalists who are foreign citizens, requiring their return to their home countries; and sought to erase regulations that insulate his newsrooms from political interference.

In interviews with multiple conservative outlets, Pack has relied upon Trumpian rhetoric to say he intended to "drain the swamp" at networks he says are staffed by journalists seeking to sabotage the president. He also sought to fire executives at USAGM, alleging they had been so lax on security measures that the networks would be ripe for espionage.

Warnings about Pompeo appearance at VOA

Pompeo has been one of President Trump's most loyal allies, and he has remained silent as other Cabinet members, national security advisers and press aides have resigned their position, denouncing the president's role in inciting followers who stormed the Capitol building on Wednesday.

Similarly, Pack has not addressed those concerns, either publicly or internally to his own staff. Six USAGM and VOA staffers raised concerns about the appropriateness of Pompeo's visit so close to the end of his term. Initially, new VOA director Robert R. Reilly said it would also run on whatever VOA broadcast services were live at the time of his speech. Journalists at VOA pushed back; it was not clear whether the Pompeo speech would ultimately run on its networks at all or would be streamed on its digital site.

Journalists also pointed to the nature of the event — in person and indoors — as a possible health risk, even with limited seating. It is not the first time such questions have been raised. Pompeo held large indoor holiday parties last month despite warnings from public health officials. "The Voice of America scrupulously adheres to all CDC COVID-19 guidelines," a VOA spokeswoman said in a statement.

On Friday, a group of anonymous USAGM and VOA whistleblowers represented by the private Government Accountability Project filed a formal complaint to Pack, Reilly, Congress. the U.S. State Department inspector general and the U.S. Special Counsel, another investigative office.

The letter from the whistleblowers' lead attorney, David Z. Seide, decried "the use of VOA to disseminate political propaganda in the waning days of the Trump administration." He argued it was yet another effort by Pack and Reilly to politicize the network and its parent agency. And the whistleblowers also alleged VOA's announced intention to broadcast the speech marks a violation of the "firewall" protections intended by statute and also in regulations swept aside by Pack last year.

Accused of funneling charitable donations to a personal venture

Pack made his reputation as a conservative documentary maker; his for-profit film company, called Manifold Productions, has made such projects as "Created Equal" on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It featured extensive interviews with the reclusive jurist and was released last year to a favorable response.

On Tuesday, D.C. Attorney General Racine accused Pack of establishing the non-profit Public Media Lab "for the sole purpose of self-enrichment," shielding $4.1 million in tax-protected funds over 12 years to Manifold, his for-profit film venture. According to the lawsuit, Manifold received more than 99% of Public Media Lab's grants from 2008 to 2018. And that money constituted 60% of all its revenues from 2008 to 2019.

Racine further alleged that the board obscured the relationship between the two entities. According to the lawsuit, Pack served as president and CEO of both Public Media Lab and the sole owner of Manifold Productions. He transferred ownership of Manifold to his wife, Gina Cappo Pack, in June 2020, when Pack took over USAGM.

Pack and his attorneys have not yet responded to the suit in court. Alan P. Dye, an experienced conservative not-for-profit lawyer and board member of Pack's Public Media Lab, rejected the allegations of wrongdoing contained in the lawsuit in a brief conversation with NPR. He said he was constrained from commenting further at this time.

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey had sought to delay Pack's nomination vote, pointing to Racine's ongoing investigation. This week, noting the formal allegations contained in the lawsuit, Menendez tweeted that Pack's confirmation was a "stain on the Senate and our country."

In October, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled in another case brought by Racine that Pack had broken the law in firing board members over the Open Technology Fund, which is subsidized by USAGM. Pack had replaced the bipartisan board with one stocked with conservative activists and Trump administration officials.

A plea for Biden's attention

Pack did the same with three other non-profit networks funded by USAGM and made himself board chairman over Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; Radio Free Asia; and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. He sought to force the networks to sign binding contracts ensuring that the boards could not be removed for two full years for any cause, and that board members could only be removed "for cause" subsequently, even though Biden aides have made clear he intends to replace Pack promptly.

That inspired the joint letter released Friday by former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty presidents Tom Dine, Jamie Fly, Jeffrey Gedmin, Tom Kent, and Kevin Klose (who led NPR, among other things, in between two stints at the federal network). Fly was fired by Pack along with the heads of other networks last summer.

They cited what they called Pack's proposed "radical changes in the governance" of the networks. "Credibility with audiences takes years to build and can be destroyed in days," they wrote. "Mr. Pack's personnel and policy actions have sought to impose ideological coloration on programming and tight governmental and political control that risk destroying the credibility and effectiveness of al US international broadcasting."

Disclosures: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR Tech and Media 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. Additionally, former NPR CEO Kevin Klose was twice president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a signatory of the letter to President-elect Biden.

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