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Biden quickly rehired senior officials fired by Trump for alleged security, financial lapses

"If I was a spy, where would I target? Obviously" the U.S. Agency for Global Media, Trump appointee said.

Published: February 16, 2022 7:37pm

Updated: March 25, 2022 11:20pm

The Biden administration quickly rehired senior officials fired for serious security and financial lapses in the waning days of the Trump administration, according to documents reviewed by Just the News.

The U.S. Agency for Global Media, home to the Voice of America and funder of nonprofit broadcasters targeting Europe, Asia and the Middle East, also rehired an official who resigned shortly before his investigation was complete.

The media portrayed them as whistleblowers protecting journalistic integrity from political appointees who wanted to dictate their coverage. Official summaries of their investigations by an outside law firm, recently entered into the Congressional Record, complicate that narrative.

Many alleged violations were related to the agency's continued performance of background investigations on workers — often foreign nationals — for several years after it lost its "delegated authority" from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

The rehired officials were also granted their security clearances during that time, investigators from McGuireWoods law firm wrote in Dec. 9, 2020 memos. McGuireWoods was the law firm retained to perform an investigation into mismanagement or worse at USAGM.

Delegated authority is rare outside the intelligence community, according to Federal News Network. When OPM actively blocked the agency from doing its own reviews in 2020 after years of warnings, a spokesperson said it was the first such action in more than 20 years.

Security problems were compounded by USAGM's heavy use of the J-1 visa program — intended for au pairs, students and other "exchange visitors" — to fill its journalistic and technical ranks. Outgoing CEO Michael Pack told his inspector general the agency was "rubber stamping" these applications and renewals when he arrived in mid-2020.

A Trump political appointee emphasized to Just the News that career adjudicators made the recommendations to dismiss the employees, based not only on McGuireWoods reviews but USAGM's internal investigations.

"If I was a spy, where would I target?" the appointee asked rhetorically: "Obviously this agency" whose allegedly deficient background checks provide easy entry to other federal agencies, thanks to reciprocity agreements on security clearances.

Pack and his team were "flooded with actual whistleblowers" when they arrived, according to the appointee: Half were too afraid of retaliation to put their claims in writing, and those who did have faced actual retaliation since the Biden transition.

It's mind-blowing how the fired senior officials "paint themselves as whistleblowers when they're not," the appointee said.

USAGM declined to respond to specific findings in the McGuireWoods investigative summaries. Director of Public Affairs Laurie Moy pointed to a 2021 review by the State Department Office of Inspector General that found the agency "has taken actions to address long-standing deficiencies identified by OPM and [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] with the personnel suitability and national security determination processes."

That office also concluded "the individuals in question were wrongly targeted in retaliation for making protected disclosures," Moy wrote in an email, "and as a result their security clearances were improperly suspended. Consistent with OIG's finding, USAGM has reinstated the wrongly targeted individuals."

Taking conversations 'offline' 

General counsel David Kligerman, the official who preemptively resigned, "resisted implementing the personnel security requirements" for a government-wide regulation on determining "national security positions," according to his investigative summary.

A security official had warned him that in the past "hostile foreign intelligence services have placed agents within [USAGM] to build credibility as a trusted federal employee" and apply for federal positions elsewhere that "deal with more sensitive matters."

Kligerman instead sought a waiver that "appears to have caused employees to receive background investigations at the wrong levels, and to have delayed the re-evaluation of grantees as well, raising concerns about foreign national personnel receiving higher clearance than may have been appropriate."

Investigators found "numerous examples" of Kligerman failing to respond, sometimes for months at a time, if ever, to employees who send him documents, agreements and policies to review. One of these concerned an official allegedly promoted as a reward for "cover[ing] for various illegalities."

Another was updated guidance on a law that bans state-funded media from showing content to Americans unless they request it. Kligerman sat on it for a year, even after The New York Times broke the story of Radio Free Europe (RFE) targeting Facebook ads to Americans. 

The general counsel also had a habit of taking conversations "offline" and refusing to put his answers in writing. He did this twice when confronted about financial discussions with Radio Free Asia (RFA) president Libby Liu, on whose behalf he would "intercede in disputes ... in a potentially improper or ill-advised manner."

Matt Walsh, deputy director of operations, was aware of the agency's chronic noncompliance with federal directives on security, personnel and information technology, but documents aren't clear whether he worked to implement proposed reforms, according to his review.

When OPM sent its 2018 report on USAGM's problematic background investigations to then-CEO John Lansing, "he said that he had no idea what it was," according to the review. An email from Walsh suggests he "may not have been keeping Lansing informed of the various reports, recommendations and corrective actions in play, or their seriousness."

Walsh's response to the 2020 report that actively blocked USAGM from doing its own investigations showed he "did not seem to grasp" how serious it was. He had "a very positive outlook on what had been accomplished over the years" and groused when Pack, the new CEO and first to be confirmed by the Senate, didn't appreciate his effort.

That very positive outlook continued when the Facebook ad targeting was exposed. Walsh named Kligerman co-leader of a new working group on "digital/social ads and boosting," and he "did not notice or looked past the fact" that Kligerman had sat on new guidance for nearly a year.

The review also flagged "Walsh's potential involvement" in another senior official's apparent plan to rush through several promotions before Pack arrived at USAGM.

Chief Financial Officer Grant Turner showed a consistent "failure to remedy corrective measures" on financial and grants management in response to Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports for at least five years, according to his review. 

OIG eventually threatened to report the agency to Congress for the "very little progress" made on Turner's watch between two reports four years apart on dubious "after-employment benefits" in RFE.

"Turner seemed to try to distance himself from ... responsibility" for making RFA's Liu comply with reporting requirements on how her Open Technology Fund (OTF) was spending $6 million. He also suggested a "bridge funding measure ... specifically designed to fly under the radar" when Capitol Hill was demanding answers about spending on OTF, which is supposed to be dedicated to internet firewall circumvention.

When Liu told him she was already spending funds that required a "reprogramming" clearance, Turner responded with a "frownyface" emoticon but "did not tell Liu that she needed to cease spending those funds" until they were cleared. (Liu spun off and incorporated OTF shortly before stepping down from RFA in 2019.)

Investigators also found "numerous examples" of Walsh and Turner forwarding "potentially sensitive USAGM-related documents" to their personal email accounts, in Turner's case for years.

Walsh forwarded a "draft USAGM risk profile" the day he was put on leave, while Turner forwarded OTF funding documents and grant agreements especially in 2020, a year after its RFA spinoff.

Chief Strategy Officer Shawn Powers outdid them. According to the report, he "wiped or otherwise factory reset" agency-issued electronic devices when he was put on leave pending investigation, violating not only agency policies but likely federal recordkeeping regulations.

His predecessor hired Powers as a "senior advisor" just six days after the job was posted. This "suspiciously fast" hiring, at the maximum salary level for the government's second-highest classification, provoked an internal complaint that Powers had been illicitly "burrow[ed]" into a civil service position.

Powers appointed his own "senior advisor" — and then wrote the position description — months after an employee accused that person of "inappropriate behavior." Another supervised employee subsequently accused Powers of "harassment and abuse."

Just the News asked for responses to the findings from Kligerman, Turner and Powers, who remain at USAGM; Walsh, who joined YouTube in January; and Liu, who left the agency a year before the investigations.

Robert Litt, of counsel to law firm Morrison & Foerster, wrote back on behalf of "present and former employees, including Shawn Powers and David Kligerman, among others," whom he's representing "in connection with the failed and unlawful efforts of prior management to terminate them."

He said the allegations "are false and were commissioned as an attempt by prior management to further its efforts to politicize the agency," and that "we understand" OIG is investigating "the circumstances under which McGuire Woods was hired."

OIG told Just the News it was reviewing a "noncompetitive contract awarded to McGuireWoods. We expect to issue our report this spring or early summer. The report will be public."

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