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Inspector general shrugs at decade-long security lapses at Voice of America parent agency

House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans are not letting up on U.S. Agency for Global Media, however.

Published: March 4, 2022 10:03am

Updated: March 29, 2022 10:20am

The State Department's in-house watchdog and congressional Republicans have very different appraisals of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the government-run news agency responsible for broadcasting America's message to the world.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) shrugged at concerns by USAGM's first Senate-confirmed CEO, Michael Pack, that it had routinely ignored security protocols "for at least a decade" while using the same visas intended for au pairs to hire foreign nationals as journalists.

By contrast, House Foreign Affairs Committee GOP members continue hounding the agency for rehiring senior officials dismissed by Pack for security and financial lapses — and in one case, inventing a doctorate — once the Biden administration took office.

A week before the new president fired him, Pack formally asked OIG to investigate USAGM's myriad problems dating back to the first Obama term. Eleven months later, on Dec. 27, OIG published the "unclassified" results of its investigation, which were heavily redacted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

It found that USAGM "had taken or was taking corrective action to address these issues," particularly by transferring its "investigations for newly hired employees and reinvestigations of current employees" to the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) in 2018. 

The vast majority of federal agencies already outsource their reviews to DCSA, but USAGM was one of very few non-intelligence agencies given "delegated authority" by OPM to do its own.

Given that OPM and ODNI are monitoring USAGM's progress on its remediation plans, "OIG is not making any recommendations related to this issue," the report said. 

It included acting CEO Kelu Chao's full and oft-italicized response, which claims OIG rebutted "the crux of Mr. Pack's assertions." She claimed USAGM actually "over-investigat[ed]" staff and called it "highly significant" that OIG decided against an audit of the personnel security program.

Pack, a veteran filmmaker perhaps best known for his PBS documentary on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, told Just the News the OIG report was "bizarre." 

It ignored the concerns that OPM and ODNI brought "directly" to him "in a way I could not ignore," Pack said, and the methodology section of the report "doesn't even claim to have done research, [but] merely talked to disgruntled employees."

Just the News has viewed three versions of the report. The original was removed, apparently in January, and replaced by a "sensitive but unclassified" (SBU) version. After Just the News notified OIG that fragments of sentences were now missing, making them unintelligible, it uploaded yet another version.

OIG spokesperson Mark Huffman said the later versions available to the public have "the correct SBU markings" but that the designation is crossed out because it's redacted. 

He defended the robustness of the investigation, noting OIG reviewed OPM and ODNI assessments and documentation and interviewed their officials, as well as those with DCSA and USAGM, "to understand to what extent current and newly hired USAGM employees possess valid suitability and national security determinations."

Three weeks before OIG's report, Empower Oversight Whistleblowers & Research filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking an earlier OIG report on Pack's suspension of security clearances for six senior officials accused of chronic security lapses.

OIG reportedly found that the senior officials were whistleblowers who endured retaliation from Pack, who had no "legitimate basis" to suspend their clearances, but State does not appear to have made the report public, the request says. (It's briefly mentioned in OIG's latest report to Congress.)

The whistleblower group seeks all investigative reports related to internal whistleblower retaliation during Pack's seven-month tenure and OIG's communications regarding Pack with Capitol Hill and USAGM personnel.

The group's founder Jason Foster, former chief investigative counsel to then-Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), told Just the News that State's FOIA officer had still not responded to the group's request more than two months later. Huffman told Just the News that OIG was "currently working on" a response and expects to have it "ready soon."

'Stonewalling to cover up'

Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul has been demanding answers from Chao, the acting CEO, for nearly a year about rehiring a "personal friend" — a possible violation of ethics rules — toa senior job in Voice of America.

Career staff purportedly determined in December 2020 that the official had falsified credentials and abused public funds, then after the presidential transition, they suddenly claimed the investigation was not "complete," McCaul wrote in October

The only report shared with Congress from the second investigation is "incomplete, rife with factual omissions and abbreviated explanations" at odds with the original, more detailed "notice for proposed removal," he said.

After five fruitless requests for more information, committee staff confirmed with with the accused official's university in France that she never earned a doctorate and that she had not presented a diploma or transcript to USAGM. 

The French embassy told staff the matter was also under legal review. Committee Republicans suspect USAGM is "stonewalling to cover up what has transpired," including whether the official's security clearance is legitimate, McCaul said.

Just the News has viewed the Jan. 5, 2021 "Notice of Proposal to Suspend/Remove" issued to the official by her superior at VOA, which says she invented a doctorate from a French school. The 15-page letter details multiple whistleblower complaints regarding her management of the network, waste of government funds, "potentially fraudulent expenditures" and doling out "excessive overtime" to her favorites on staff.

A current USAGM employee familiar with Sieg's work and alleged wrongdoing told Just the News there's a politically diverse coalition of employees waiting for Republicans to take back the House this fall so USAGM will be legally obligated to answer GOP subpoenas: At that point "we'll absolutely get to the bottom of this coverup."

Chao sought to turn the tables on McCaul in her Nov. 16 response, which ignored his requests for communications regarding the official and has not been previously reported.

As a career employee, the accused official must remain "appropriately insulated from political pressures," the acting CEO said, and USAGM is emerging from "the shadow of a period of substantial turmoil" resulting from the "apparent politicization" of personnel decisions in the Trump administration.

McCaul's concerns will be forwarded to the Office of Human Resources to "take any appropriate investigative and other actions," Chao said. 

Committee Republicans told USAGM this response was not sufficient, an aide told Just the News. "We are determined to get to the bottom of this and find out how involved the acting CEO was," said the aide.

Asked whether the agency challenges the factuality of the findings against Sieg, the conclusions drawn or proposed sanction, USAGM Director of Public Affairs Laurie Moy told Just the News March 28 that it "cannot comment on personnel issues" but can confirm "Sieg is serving as Special Assistant to VOA Programming Director [sic]."

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a member of the Oversight Subcommittee, scolded Chao in January for months of stonewalling not only him but the Democratic chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, New York Rep. Gregory Meeks.

They jointly asked USAGM in July for “any and all final reports, memoranda, and/or recommendations … on any topic" from McGuireWoods, the outside law firm commissioned by Pack to investigate senior officials for security and financial lapses. The Biden administration quickly rehired those who were fired.

Perry sent his own letter in August with broader demands for records, including those related to the spun-off Open Technology Fund and its refusal to detail how it's distributing taxpayer money, as required by its USAGM grant conditions.

Chao's office has made "no effort to facilitate the release" of the McGuireWoods report since then, or provided anything "resembling a substantive response" to Perry's request for "specific information about personnel misconduct," he wrote in January.

Perry warned Chao that he had managed to obtain "what we believe to be the vast majority" of the McGuireWoods report, which suggests USAGM employees may have violated federal laws, and submitted it into the Congressional Record

Perry aide Chris Fernandez told Just the News his office initially received "an email text reply" Feb. 8 from USAGM's congressional affairs director. They demanded Chao's response on letterhead, addressed to Perry, and finally got such a letter Feb. 18.

"While we have not yet concluded the thorough investigation underway that addresses all issues raised, my staff has tried to maintain active communication" with committee staff, particularly on USAGM's security designation authority and McGuireWoods documents, the acting CEO wrote.

Chao said the agency couldn't confirm the McGuireWoods documents in Perry's possession were "unaltered." The authentic documents include "privileged attorney-client communications" and sensitive career employee information protected by the Privacy Act, and must be provided to the committee "responsibly."

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