6 whistleblowers allege misconduct by government media boss

Six senior officials at the U.S. Agency for Global Media have filed a whistleblower complaint with the State Department’s inspector general and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, alleging that they were retaliated against for raising concerns about the new political leadership installed earlier this year by President Donald Trump.

The 32-page complaint, obtained by POLITICO and being shared with Capitol Hill, accuses top officials at the taxpayer-funded media group of abusing their authority, violating the law and mismanaging the organization.

In perhaps the complaint’s most explosive allegation, its authors say one of them was told the media group’s CEO Michael Pack or one of his aides ordered a senior USAGM official to conduct research on the voting history of at least one employee at the media agency — a violation of laws protecting civil servants from undue political influence or reprisal.

“[T]he research was to be utilized in evaluating career civil servants’ abilities to carry out the duties of their positions,” the complaint reads.

The complaint says that Grant Turner, who was pushed out as USAGM’s chief financial officer in August, three months ago started telling the State IG that the media group’s CEO Michael Pack and top lawyer Mora Namdar were violating the law in pressuring his office to withhold congressionally appropriated money from USAGM’s Office of Cuba Broadcasting in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, a law that prohibits agencies from spending money that they don’t properly have on their books.

Turner, who testified in front of Congress last week, also alleges that Pack “crossed the firewall” that is meant to protect the journalistic independence of USAGM’s news networks from political interference, including by removing an Urdu journalist who had done a piece on former Vice President Joe Biden. All six of the officials who filed the whistleblower complaint were removed from their posts on the same day in August but remain at the agency on “investigative leave.”

The complaint also details concerns former chief strategy officer Shawn Powers raised internally about how a freeze on spending was putting the organization’s journalists in danger.

“Mr. Powers raised urgent concerns regarding the impact that Mr. Pack’s spending freeze was having on USAGM’s ability to support internet freedom tools in Hong Kong amidst the ongoing Chinese crackdown and takeover of local governing authorities,” the complaint says. “Mr. 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. Mr. Pack’s failure to support the internet freedom tools created a specific physical danger to USAGM journalists.”

Powers also made a “protected disclosure” to a staffer for Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, about how Pack’s reorganization had led to a “substantial reduction” in his duties without first providing a mandatory 14-day notifcation to Congress. Powers, who was worried about reprisal for disclosing this information to Congress and was in fact removed from his job in August, also told the Menendez staffer that he feared Pack was going to circumvent a congressional hold on $7 million in appropriations in order to cover expenses for the Cuba broadcasting office.

Another of the six officials who filed the complaint, Marie Lennon, who was director of management services, alleges that the Office of Personnel Management had said that USAGM had exceeded its authority in trying to hire four new staffers for temporary positions and that she was worried that Pack was bringing these people on board to “politicize” USAGM.

After she raised concerns about this to Cullo and USAGM chief of staff Emily Newman, Lennon says, she lost her access to classified information in a “clear and explicit retaliatory action.”

Controversial hires have continued despite the criticism. The latest example is Robert W. Patterson, who recently started in the White House liaison’s office at the agency, according to a USAGM official. Almost a decade ago, Patterson, who has worked in the Social Security Administration, wrote that condoms deprive women of semen’s “remarkable chemicals.”

"The pill-popping young lady in search of a husband is more likely to end up marrying the wrong kind of man from a biological and reproductive standpoint — and a guy she may no longer be attracted to after she goes off the Pill,” he wrote in 2011. “If this weren’t enough, now comes evidence revealing how another contraceptive device, the condom, also works against the health and well-being of women.” NPR first reported the hire.

Asked for comment on the whistleblower complaint, USAGM, in an unsigned email sent from the agency's main public affairs account, said in a statement to POLITICO: "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."

Cullo, Newman and Namdar didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.