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Trump's VOA chief paid 'extravagantly' to investigate critics: Watchdog

An inspector general said the the investigation of officials at U.S. Agency for Global Media conducted by a private law firm for former CEO Michael Pack was a "waste or gross waste" of taxpayer money. The law firm charged the agency more than $1.6 million. The officials under review by Pack, shown above at a party earlier this year with Steve Forbes, were later exonerated.
Patrick McMullan
PMC via Getty Images
An inspector general said the the investigation of officials at U.S. Agency for Global Media conducted by a private law firm for former CEO Michael Pack was a "waste or gross waste" of taxpayer money. The law firm charged the agency more than $1.6 million. The officials under review by Pack, shown above at a party earlier this year with Steve Forbes, were later exonerated.

Former President Donald Trump's pick to oversee the parent agency of the Voice of America paid a prestigious private law firm so extravagantly to investigate his own agency's senior executive officials that it constituted a "waste or gross waste of government resources," a federal watchdog concluded Friday.

Michael Pack, the former CEO of VOA-parent U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO, awarded the contract without any bidding process to the politically connected Richmond, Va., law firm McGuireWoods, which ultimately received more than $1.6 million in taxpayer money.

Friday's report from the U.S. State Department's Inspector General found the service the law firm provided "were duplicative of existing resources and involved the payment of billable hours far in excess of the salary of federal employees who can perform the same work." The inspector general also found "serious violations of federal law and regulation" in the payment of a subcontractor without any authorization.

Neither Pack nor two representatives of McGuireWoods replied to efforts requesting comment on the findings on Friday.

Pack's initial nomination to the job by Trump languished for 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 outlets that, like Trump himself, he was there to "drain the swamp" at Voice of America and its sister networks.

In such appearances, Pack claimed, without evidence, that opportunities for espionage were rife within its networks. He embarked on efforts to investigate and stamp out what he alleged was rampant anti-Trump bias in Voice of America's coverage.

The government-owned service seeks to provide independent news reporting for more than 312 million people overseas every week across multiple platforms. His advisers orderedinvestigations of individual reporters; he rejected the employee visa renewals of some foreign nationals, forcing them to scramble for new posts or to return home, often to regimes hostile to the U.S.

Pack's criticisms span a period that includes the tenure of former USAGM CEO John Lansing, who is now CEO at NPR. (Under NPR's protocols, top newsroom leaders cannot review any of the network's coverage that touches on USAGM because of his prior position there.)

In the summer of 2020, Pack moved swiftly to fire most of his top leadership team, including his chief financial officer, his general counsel, and his chief strategic officer, enraged that they blocked some of his initiatives and warned others could prove illegal. Told that it was also probably illegal to fire them, Pack placed seven on administrative leave and revoked the security clearance of six of them. In August 2020, Pack commissioned McGuireWoods to conduct an inquiry into them.

A July 2021 review by the same government watchdog exonerated the officials with the suspended clearances of any wrongdoing. In addition, it found that Pack had targeted them for raising red flags over his actions. The inspector general rebuked USAGM for failing to refer concerns about them to its office, which is charged with conducting such reviews under federal law. But it also said the costs were extreme and contrary to federal rules and regulations.

One McGuire Woods attorney charged the federal agency $930 an hour for his work; That was about 12 times the cost that would have been incurred by relying on a government attorney, the inspector general's office found. "USAGM paid for over 1,600 hours of McGuireWoods attorneys' time who billed at a rate in excess of $500 per hour," it stated.

NPR obtained documents reflecting that McGuireWoods intended to charge USAGM $2.1 million, but its actual billings ultimately ebbed.

Pack had ties to the Richmond law firm. The conservative filmmaker had become close to U.S. Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni, interviewing the couple for a sympathetic documentary. John Adams, McGuireWoods' lead partner on the USAGM contract, had served as Thomas's law clerk at the Supreme Court.

McGuireWoods' contract

Starting in late 2020, NPR did a series of stories detailing McGuireWoods' activities for USAGM, including the law firm's decision to shed a client that could have impeded its ability to secure the lucrative contract.

The Open Technology Fund, a not-for-profit almost wholly dependent on USAGM for money, had sought free advice from McGuireWoods lawyers on legal matters in spring 2020. In June 2020, Pack decided to take over the fund, to redirect all his agency's subsidies from it, and to fire its leaders and board. He instead wanted to use the money for anti-censorship software tied to Falun Gong. Attorneys for the fund shared sensitive materials with McGuireWoods as they strategized with the firms' lawyers over a potential lawsuit to block the moves.

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

In December 2020, Pack unveiled a plan to strip the Open Technology Fund of federal dollars and ban it from receiving any government funds. In so doing, he relied on material from McGuireWoods.

The inspector general's report did not address that element. A complaint to the Virginia State Bar over McGuireWoods' actions toward the Open Technology Fund has not resulted in any action against the firm, according to a review of publicly available records.

Pack's moves drew condemnation internally and externally; the U.S. Congress passed legislation to insulate Voice of America from political meddling and, in one case, a federal judge called Pack's actions unconstitutional.

Pack resigned at President Biden's request just two hours after the new president took the oath of office in January 2021. The new leadership of USAGM embraced the inspector general's findings on Friday. And Biden's nominee for the USAGM CEO position, former Voice of America director Amanda Bennett, still awaits a vote from the U.S. Senate.

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR chief business editor Pallavi Gogoi. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior 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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David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.