Trump’s VOA chief paid ‘extravagantly’ to probe critics: watchdog: NPR

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An inspector general said the investigation by officials at the US Agency for Global Media, conducted by a private law firm into former CEO Michael Pack, was a “waste or gross waste” of taxpayers’ money. The law firm billed the agency more than $1.6 million. Pack verified officials, shown above at a party earlier this year with Steve Forbes, were later exonerated.

Patrick McMullan/PMC via Getty Images


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Patrick McMullan/PMC via Getty Images


An inspector general said the investigation by officials at the US Agency for Global Media, conducted by a private law firm into former CEO Michael Pack, was a “waste or gross waste” of taxpayers’ money. The law firm billed the agency more than $1.6 million. Pack verified officials, shown above at a party earlier this year with Steve Forbes, were later exonerated.

Patrick McMullan/PMC via Getty Images

The election of former President Donald Trump to oversee the Voice of America’s parent company paid a respected private law firm so extravagantly that it investigated his own agency’s senior officials that it represented a “waste or gross waste of government resources.” A federal guard closed on Friday.

Michael Pack, the former CEO of VOA’s parent company, the US Agency for Global Media CEO, awarded the contract to politically-affiliated Richmond, Virginia law firm McGuireWoods without bidding, which ultimately received more than $1.6 million in taxpayers’ money.

The U.S. State Department‘s Inspector General’s report on Friday found that the services provided by the law firm “were a duplication of existing resources and involved payment of billable hours well in excess of the pay of federal employees who can perform the same work.” . The inspector general also found “serious violations of federal laws and regulations” in paying a subcontractor without authorization.

Neither Pack nor two McGuireWoods representatives responded to requests for comment on the results Friday.

Pack’s first nomination for the job by Trump lasted two years; Shortly after showing up at USAGM headquarters in early June 2020, he all but declared war on his new colleagues. Pack told conservative media that, like Trump himself, he is there to “drain the swamp” at Voice of America and its sister networks.

In such appearances, Pack claimed without evidence that espionage opportunities were rife on his networks. He made efforts to investigate and root out what he described as widespread anti-Trump bias in Voice of America’s reporting.

The state-owned service tries to provide independent news coverage to more than 312 million people abroad each week across multiple platforms. His advisers ordered investigations into individual reporters; He refused to extend employee visas for some foreigners, forcing them to seek new jobs or return home, often to regimes hostile to the United States

Pack’s criticism spans a period that includes the tenure of former USAGM CEO John Lansing, who is now CEO of NPR. (According to NPR logs, senior news editors cannot review network coverage affecting USAGM due to its prior position there.)

In the summer of 2020, Pack quickly fired most of his top leadership team, including his chief financial officer, general counsel and chief strategic officer, and was furious that they were blocking some of his initiatives and warning others that they were deemed illegal could prove. Pack said it was probably also illegal to fire them and put seven of them on administrative leave and revoked the security clearance of six of them. In August 2020, Pack hired McGuireWoods to conduct an investigation.

A July 2021 review by the same government watchdog exonerated the officers with the suspended permits for any wrongdoing. Additionally, it noted that Pack had targeted them for raising red flags about his actions. The inspector general reprimanded USAGM for not escalating concerns about him to its office, which is charged with conducting such reviews under federal law. But it also said the costs were extreme and violated federal rules and regulations.

An attorney for McGuire Woods charged the federal agency $930 an hour for his work; That’s about 12 times the cost of hiring a prosecutor, the inspector general’s office found. “USAGM paid over 1,600 hours of McGuireWoods attorneys’ time, who were billed at a rate in excess of $500 an hour,” it said.

NPR obtained documents showing McGuireWoods intended to bill USAGM $2.1 million, but his actual accounts ultimately dwindled.

Pack had ties to the Richmond law firm. The conservative filmmaker had become close with US judge Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni, interviewing the pair for a sympathetic documentary. John Adams, McGuireWoods’ lead partner on the USAGM contract, had served as clerk for Thomas on the Supreme Court.

Contract of McGuireWoods

Beginning in late 2020, NPR began publishing a series of stories about McGuireWoods’ activities for USAGM, including the law firm’s decision to fire a client that could have impacted their ability to secure the lucrative contract.

The Open Technology Fund, a non-profit organization that is almost entirely dependent on USAGM financially, received free legal advice from McGuireWoods attorneys in spring 2020. In June 2020, Pack decided to take over the fund to rebalance all of its agencies, give it subsidies and fire its leaders and board. Instead, he wants to use the money for connected anti-censorship software Falun Gong. The fund’s lawyers shared sensitive materials with McGuireWoods as they strategized with the firms’ lawyers for a potential lawsuit to block the moves.

After reviewing the materials and dragging their feet, McGuireWoods’ senior partners raised concerns the case might be too political, three people with knowledge told NPR, and the firm dropped the technology fund as a client. Pack awarded McGuireWoods his contract just weeks later.

In December 2020, Pack revealed a plan to deprive the Open Technology Fund of federal dollars and prohibit it from receiving any government funds. He relied on material from McGuireWoods.

The Inspector General’s report did not address this element. A complaint to the Virginia State Bar about McGuireWoods’ actions with the Open Technology Fund has resulted in no lawsuit against the company, according to a review of publicly available records.

Pack’s moves were condemned internally and externally; The US Congress passed legislation to protect Voice of America from political interference, and in one case a federal judge ruled Pack’s actions unconstitutional.

Pack resigned at President Biden’s request just two hours after the new president was sworn in in January 2021. USAGM’s new leadership welcomed the inspector general’s findings on Friday. And Biden’s nominee for USAGM CEO, former Voice of America director Amanda Bennett, is still awaiting a US Senate vote.

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR editor-in-chief Pallavi Gogoi. Due to NPR CEO John Lansing’s previous 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.

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