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Watchdogs open probes into alleged misconduct and retaliation at US Agency for Global Media

Posted October 2, 2020 5:13 p.m. EDT

— Two government watchdogs have launched investigations into allegations of retaliation and misconduct by President Donald Trump's head of the US Agency for Global Media.

It is the latest development to hit the agency, beset by controversy since CEO Michael Pack took the helm in June. Pack's actions in his short tenure there have drawn the scrutiny of congressional Democrats and Republicans alike.

The State Department's inspector general and the US Office of Special Counsel quickly opened the inquiries after six senior officials at the Agency for Global Media filed a complaint alleging that Pack had engaged in abuse of authority and gross mismanagement, according to Mark Zaid, the lawyer representing the whistleblowers.

"The complaint involves six top leaders at USAGM who have been targeted by the current political leadership in a manner that is causing waves throughout the journalistic community," Zaid told CNN on Thursday. "Every indication is that both oversight authorities are taking it completely seriously, and I know are devoting substantial resources."

The 32-page complaint, obtained by CNN and first reported by Politico, lays out specific details of the alleged misconduct, including legal violations, by Pack and other political leadership at the taxpayer-funded agency, whose stated mission "is to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy."

CNN has reached out to the agency for comment but has not heard back. In a statement to Politico, the agency said, "The allegations listed in the complaint are without merit and completely false. All actions taken by the U.S. Agency for Global Media are in accordance with the law."

The complaint contains multiple allegations that Pack and other senior leaders retaliated against career officials.

It says that Pack allegedly wanted to force out Matthew Walsh -- the deputy director for operations -- and the other five complainants because he believed they "were part of the 'Deep State' and that they had played a role in the delay in Mr. Pack's confirmation to his position at USAGM."

"Another senior USAGM official told Mr. Walsh that Mr. Pack or one of Mr. Pack's close aides had ordered him to conduct research on the voting history of USAGM employees, including Mr. Walsh, and that the research was to be utilized in evaluating career civil servants' abilities to carry out the duties of their positions," the complaint said.

According to the complaint's allegations, "each of the Complainants was targeted for retaliatory action by Mr. Pack because of his belief that they held political views opposed to his, which is a violation of the Hatch Act."

All of the six officials who had filed whistleblower complaints were placed on administrative leave in August. The agency claimed they had been "improperly granted security clearances" and "failed to take remedial actions to address personnel and security concerns prior to permitting other USAGM employees to receive security clearances," according to the complaint -- but the whistleblowers contend it was retaliatory.

The complaint also lays out a number of times where the senior officials raised concerns that Pack's actions were putting journalists at risk. It describes allegations from multiple officials that Pack had breached the "firewall" meant to protect the agency's news outlets from undue influence and maintain their journalistic independence. As CEO, Pack oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.

"One example is what (Grant Turner, the chief financial officer) understands to be the removal of an Urdu journalist working for USAGM, based upon Mr. Pack's disagreement with the political viewpoint of a piece on former Vice President Biden," the complaint said.

Shawn Powers, the chief strategy officer, raised concerns about the spending freeze instituted by Pack when he took over as head of the agency, according to the complaint. Powers "specifically pointed out that the spending freeze was placing USAGM's journalists at grave risk, and that the funds needed to be released to ensure that both USAGM's journalists and its audience were safe from surveillance and persecution," it said.

Marie Lennon, the director of management services, shared concerns with the agency's leadership that if journalists' visas were not extended, they could face risk if they had to return to their countries of origin, according to the complaint.

In addition, according to the 32-page document, the chief of staff and deputy chief of staff allegedly told Lennon "to take care of bringing on-board four new staff members" in temporary positions, despite the fact that the Office of Personnel Management had said the Agency for Global Media "had exceeded its authority for this type of appointment."

"Based on her many years of experience with USAGAM, it appeared to Ms. Lennon that Mr. Pack was improperly hiring individuals in order to politicize USAGM. These individuals were ultimately hired and joined USAGM," the complaint said.

The complaint notes that some of these concerns had been shared earlier as protected disclosures with the inspector general and certain congressional committees.

Pack's actions at the agency have come under scrutiny by lawmakers on both sides of the congressional aisle. Last week he defied a congressional subpoena compelling him to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. That move was condemned by both Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, and ranking member Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican.

The State Department Office of Inspector General told CNN it "cannot confirm or deny the existence of any specific investigation" but noted that "Offices of Inspectors General are required to review certain matters under Presidential Policy Directive 19."

"Presidential Policy Directive 19 prohibits whistleblower retaliation in the form of actions that affect an employee's eligibility for access to classified information," the Office of Inspector General statement explained.

The Office of Special Counsel told CNN it cannot comment on or confirm whether it has specific open investigations.

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