Michael Pack, CEO of the U.S. agency that oversees Voice of America, is drawing fresh scrutiny and tough questions from key Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
On Monday morning, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey sent a letter demanding answers from Pack, a Trump appointee, about his top personnel choices. Since taking office in June, Pack has been on a tear. He refused to extend visas for the agency's foreign workers, fired the heads of most of the networks he oversees and then forced out or suspended most of the agency's top executives, citing lapses in hiring procedures and security protocols.
Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, turned that argument against Pack, sharply questioning his decision on two key hires with potentially problematic pasts by asking how thoroughly their backgrounds were probed.
"I share your concerns that all USAGM employees with access to sensitive or classified information undergo thorough background investigations and disclose all relevant and required information to the U.S. government," Menendez wrote, in a letter first obtained by NPR. "I write today to ensure that USAGM and the federal government are aware of two relevant cases."
Menendez's letter follows last week's announcement by Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, that he would subpoena Pack to compel his testimony. The New York City Democrat said Pack backed out of an agreement to appear before the panel this Thursday. Pack and his top public relations aide at the agency, Jonathan Bronitsky, did not respond to or acknowledge NPR's emailed queries over the weekend.
President Trump first nominated Pack in 2018, to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. The agencies are intended to model U.S. and democratic values, including independent journalism, and are also charged with replacing a free press in societies that do not have one.
Pack is a conservative documentary maker who previously collaborated with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon and who has increasingly adopted Trump-like rhetoric as he moved into office. His nomination languished in the Senate until this year, when Trump and the White House attacked the Voice of America in the spring for its coverage of the China during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pack was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in early June along partisan lines after a contentious process. The two top leaders of the Voice of America resigned just before Pack took office.
Since doing so, Pack has upended the agency. In a podcast interview with the pro-Trump website The Federalist, Pack said he was compelled to act because, he claimed, executives and journalists were disregarding the agency's ethical standards.
"My job really is to drain the swamp, to root out corruption and to deal with these issues of bias," Pack told host Chris Bedford.
To that end, Pack hired Samuel Dewey, an investigative lawyer who previously worked for Congressional Republicans, and assigned him to investigate newsroom coverage, with an eye to reports he deems unfair to Trump.
Among those stories: one involving Trump's chief political rival. Dewey personally queried Voice of America journalists over a piece for the Urdu language service, which is intended to reach Pakistani audiences. The story centered on Democratic presidential Joe Biden's outreach efforts to Muslim voters. Some journalists there found it problematic. (Dewey has told NPR that he did not make his inquiries with a partisan tilt.)
Even so, current and former journalists at Voice of America and executives at USAGM told NPR they consider the involvement of an agency lawyer to review their coverage a violation of legal protections of journalistic independence - called a "firewall." Similarly, USAGM's human resources department is investigating the tone of a segment on Biden's wife Jill Biden, who would become first lady were the Democrat to defeat Trump this fall.
As NPR revealed last week, Dewey was also subject to a restraining order by a Maryland judge in February that remains in effect until early next year. Menendez cited that judicial decree in his letter today.
In addition, Menendez asked Pack for answers about Diane Cullo, Pack's new deputy chief of staff. Menendez questioned whether she accurately reflected the facts of her financial background, including a bankruptcy petition, in her mandatory federal government filings.
Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent and edited by NPR Chief Business Editor Pallavi Gogoi. NPR CEO John Lansing was previously CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Under NPR's protocols for reporting on itself, no NPR corporate officials or senior NPR NEWS executives reviewed this story before it was posted.