Pro-Trump shakeups continue at VOA's parent agency

In this June 15, 2020, photo, The Voice of America building in Washington. Michael Pack, the head of U.S.-funded international broadcasting is pressing ahead with his shakeup of the Voice of America and sister outlets by naming new leaders for two of its main networks and moving to defund one of the federal government's top democracy promotion initiatives. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (Andrew Harnik, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – The head of U.S.-funded international broadcasting is pressing ahead with his shakeup of the Voice of America and sister outlets by naming new leaders for two of its main networks and moving to defund one of the federal government’s top democracy promotion initiatives.

The flurry of moves by President Donald Trump’s handpicked chief of the U.S. Agency for Global Media Michael Pack come only a month before Trump leaves office and raise new concerns about the agency’s direction in the administration’s final weeks. President-elect Joe Biden and his team have pledged a full review of Pack’s actions and could replace him shortly after inauguration, but it's not entirely clear if his personnel decisions could be immediately reversed.

Democrats and some Republicans have accused Pack of trying to turn VOA and its sister networks into pro-Trump propaganda outlets, and he is under a court order not to terminate employees that he has suspended since taking over the operation in June.

Despite those potential reversals, Pack has forged ahead with changes and on Friday, less than 10 days after appointing a long-time critic of U.S.-government broadcasting to lead the Voice of America, he announced the appointment of two conservative voices to lead Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which runs Radio and Television Marti.

Pack announced that RFE/RL would be led by Ted Lipien, a former VOA official who had more recently run a blog promoting the views of disaffected staffers primarily objecting to alleged liberal bias and a lack of conservative views in its programming. Pack also announced that Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, a former Breitbart News and Washington Times journalist, would run the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.

In addition to those appointments, Pack informed the Open Technology Fund that he had begun procedures to strip it of its federal funding for at least three years, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The OTF provides technology to assist democracy advocates in repressive countries around the world.

Shortly after assuming his position in June, Pack dismissed the OTF board, whose members sued and won a court order against their dismissals. The move to “debar” it appears to be a way around the court decision and would effectively shut the OTF down. Should it proceed, the debarment would take effect on Jan. 19, just a day before Biden is sworn in.

Debarment is an extreme punishment that is usually used only in a case of major fraud and corruption by federal contractors. In a letter to the OTF, Pack said the fund had been improperly created without congressional input in 2012 and that its leadership had since been involved in numerous conflicts of interest, requiring the drastic step.

Congressional aides said they were looking at options either to slow or shut down the debarment process or, if those are unsuccessful, pursuing legislation that would allow Biden to quickly rescind the move. The aides were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

USAGM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The new personnel announcements and move against the OTF follow Pack's appointment on Dec. 9 of Robert Reilly to run VOA. Reilly is a conservative critic of VOA programming whose views on its role and comments about the gay and lesbian community have drawn criticism from public diplomacy experts. Reilly has suggested that VOA focus more on promoting U.S. policies and less on providing independent news to global audiences as required by the agency’s charter.

Pack, a conservative filmmaker, Trump ally and onetime associate of former Trump political adviser Steve Bannon, made no secret of his intent to shake up the agency since he became CEO of USAGM after a long confirmation battle in the Senate that finally ended after Trump and his allies launched a series of attacks on VOA and demanded new leadership.

VOA was founded during World War II and its congressional charter requires it to present independent news and information to international audiences.