In the Records: Internal Turmoil at the U.S. Agency for Global Media During the Last Year of the Trump Administration

Update: May 10, 2022

American Oversight received additional records in the spring of 2022. This article has been updated below.

In May 2021, American Oversight sued the U.S. Agency for Global Media — the entity that oversees Voice of America (VOA) — for the release of the communications of former CEO Michael Pack, a Trump appointee who, during less than eight months as head of the agency, took a number of actions that threatened to undermine the agency’s work and to turn it into a pro-Trump political operation. This included high-level purges of officials potentially considered to be disloyal, the installation of partisan loyalists on governing boards, and refusals to renew foreign journalists’ visas. 

During Pack’s tenure, he also suggested that foreign journalists working at VOA could be spies and spent millions of taxpayer dollars hiring a private, Republican-aligned law firm to investigate top USAGM executives he had suspended. Pack’s actions sparked internal tumult as journalists’ visas expired and senior employees were forced aside.

Through our Freedom of Information Act litigation, American Oversight has obtained more than 2,000 pages of documents that shed light on Pack’s controversial personnel decisions and his and other Trump allies’ efforts to delay the J-1 visa renewal process for USAGM journalists.

Internal Tumult at USAGM

Pack, a conservative filmmaker and ally to former White House strategist Steve Bannon, was confirmed as USAGM CEO in June 2020. After less than two weeks, Pack fired the heads of four of USAGM’s broadcasting subdivisions in what one former official called a “Wednesday night massacre.” 

Days before the firings, according to the records obtained by American Oversight, other employees who were later suspended sent emails in which they expressed concern about Pack’s actions, backing up previous reporting on the apparent retaliatory nature of Pack’s dismissals. 

On June 11, 2020, USAGM General Counsel David Kligerman, who was later suspended, sent an email to VOA Director Amanda Bennett in which he wrote, “Got stuck finishing to dig my grave.” Attached to the email was a Federal Register website that detailed an amended version of USAGM’s rules surrounding the agency’s firewall, which is meant to protect the network from editorial interference. The amendment had been circulated by the USAGM Board of Governors right before Pack took office. Months later, Pack rescinded the firewall rule in a move that was met with sharp criticism from journalists and free press activists. 

Another email, dated June 12, 2020, references a report on employees who had “either resigned or retired in lieu of either a performance or conduct based action,” though the actual report was not included. The email was sent to Bennett three days before she and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara submitted a joint resignation letter on June 15. That day, the Government Accountability Office asked Bennett for an interview, saying it was “examining how USAGM conducts network oversight, and how the new organizational structure, with a Presidentially-appointed CEO, might affect USAGM’s oversight role.” The “Wednesday night massacre” took place two days later, on June 17.

Elez Biberaj, who became acting director of VOA after Bennett’s resignation and was later demoted to a lower-level position at the agency, emailed Pack on July 2 to express discontent with Pack’s decision to move editorials to the top of the news agency’s website, which Biberaj implied was done without consulting VOA leadership.

Open Technology Fund

During his tenure, Pack also attempted to cut off funding for the agency’s Open Technology Fund (OTF), a nonprofit that works to advance internet freedom around the world. OTF’s CEO, Libby Liu, and the fund’s president and board had been dismissed along with the four network heads on June 17. In March 2021, it was reported that Pack had spent more than $1 million in taxpayer money to hire a law firm to investigate USAGM employees and OTF. 

The records obtained by American Oversight include hundreds of heavily redacted pages of communications regarding OTF, most of which are emails sent by Kligerman, senior-level Pack appointee Michael Williams, and attorney Lillian Cheng after news broke in late June 2020 that four dismissed USAGM advisory board members had filed a lawsuit against Pack alleging that his firings and suspensions broke federal law. The emails include the plaintiffs’ June 25 emergency motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Pack’s oversight of OTF, and show Williams, Cheng, and Kligerman collaborating on a response brief over the next day. 

On Aug. 12, 2020, Pack suspended Kligerman, USAGM Executive Director Oanh Tran, and USAGM Director of Management Services Marie Lennon, as well as a number of other senior employees. In October 2020, a District of Columbia Superior Court judge ruled that Pack had acted unlawfully in his seizure of direct control over OTF.

Pack Appointees

We also obtained communication records sent by Trump loyalists who were hired by Pack to work in various senior positions at USAGM. Many of the emails discuss the agency’s hiring practices.

On June 14, 2020, John Zadrozny, then a Trump White House official, sent a list of his “recommendations for internal broadcasting positions, including for [VOA] Director” to Emily Newman, a former Trump White House liaison and adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services who became Pack’s chief of staff. Nearly all of the names on the list were redacted, but the records show that Zadrozny specified which of the referrals were political appointees, career officials, “from a trusted source,” or people he personally knew.

Other records include early communications between Jonathan Bronitsky, a former official at the Office of Personnel Management whom Pack had appointed as USAGM’s Director of Public Affairs, and Robert Reilly, who was then the director of the Westminster Institute think tank. Pack later appointed Reilly to be VOA’s director in December 2020. (Reilly, who has published multiple anti-Islamic and homophobic writings, had briefly served as VOA director after Sept. 11, 2001.) 

On July 10, 2020, Bronitsky emailed Reilly a list of recent news and opinion articles about USAGM, including an opinion piece written by Pack in the New York Post. In emails over the next week, Bronitsky advised Reilly on how to pitch a different article about USAGM to various news organizations and provided contact information for editors at various conservative outlets. “I recommend you use a short pitch in the body of the email to emphasize 1) you’re a former VOA Director, 2) what’s involved here is the intersection of media and policy, and 3) the Pack/USAGM story is a big one, and it’s only going to get much bigger.” 

J-1 Visa Renewal Requests

Other emails obtained by American Oversight detail conversations Pack and other political appointees had about stalling or denying USAGM employees’ J-1 visa renewal applications. Among those involved were White House officials Zadrozny and Sarah Makin, as well as Newman. (Last year, a federal judge in Michigan sanctioned Newman and other attorneys who helped Sidney Powell’s “Kraken” team in its baseless lawsuit that sought to overturn the results of Michigan’s 2020 presidential election.)

On June 24, 2020, Oanh Tran, then USAGM’s executive director, expressed concerns about outstanding requests to extend employees’ expiring J-1 visas in an email to Newman and Diane Cullo, an adviser to Pack. Newman forwarded the email to Michael Williams and another official and wrote, “As discussed, Oanh should not be using the CEO Office list serve, and this type of information should flow up the chain through her direct report only.” Newman added that “it remains unclear to me why Oanh is involved in this matter at all.”

Another email thread shows that a few days later, Newman asked staff about the agency’s authority to sponsor visas for foreign journalists in an email chain. Most of the emails were entirely redacted in the records we obtained, but in an email sent June 30, Newman wrote that it was “concerning that some of the fundamental questions remain unanswered — including on what basis, and under what authority, the agency is sponsoring J1 visa holders for employment and permanent residence.”

Around the same time, Lennon sent Newman and Cullo a spreadsheet containing USAGM employee on-boarding data from June 2020, which was divided into sections based on appointment type, including “Non-Citizens” and “Foreign Service.”

The records also show that Carol Matheis, then an official in the Office of Personnel Management, was also involved in the J-1 visa discussions. On Aug. 10, Matheis emailed Dennis Kirk, a Trump appointee who also worked at OPM at the time, with text from the USAJobs website regarding the hiring of non-U.S. citizens. Kirk forwarded Matheis’ email to Newman and said the information appeared to be in her “area of information and interest.” (Matheis, a member of the conservative Federalist Society who left the federal government at the end of the Trump administration, was more recently employed as an investigator for the Wisconsin Assembly’s partisan investigation of the 2020 election.)

Other emails we obtained pertain to a review of employee social media use that was launched in late August 2020 after a VOA journalist, Bricio Segovia, claimed on Twitter on Aug. 29 that USAGM leadership had censored an interview with a member of the National Security Council, during which he asked about foreign journalists being expelled from the U.S.

The emails include a message that Sam Dewey, a lawyer hired by Pack to investigate USAGM for anti-Trump bias, sent to several top officials on Aug. 28. Dewey wrote that Segovia’s interview had come to his attention and attached a transcripted portion, which included a question about “the situation VOA foreign-born journalists are facing with the USAGM inaction to renew their J-1 visas.” Dewey asked the officials to advise on an investigation into the journalist’s conduct and that of any potentially involved parties. (The employee’s name was redacted in the emails, but the timing and content of the interview aligns with Segovia’s public statements and a lawsuit he later filed.)

In response, an official identified as VOA’s deputy director for programming wrote that the journalist’s “visa expires tonight at midnight, and he was already being removed from the system.” They added, “We accelerated that process when we heard of this issue.”

According to Segovia’s lawsuit, he was informed on Aug. 27, 2020 — the same day as his interview — that his contract with USAGM would be “terminated for the convenience of the Government.” The following day, Segovia was told that USAGM was working on his “return travel home,” though he had separately obtained a different visa that allowed him to remain in the country. Segovia was placed on leave without pay on Sept. 1 and an investigation into his conduct was opened on Sept. 7, according to the lawsuit. 

The emails obtained by American Oversight appear to show that Frank Wuco, a Trump official and conservative talk radio host whom Pack had hired as an adviser the month before, worked on the review alongside Newman and Dewey.

On Sept. 17, Wuco emailed Biberaj, then still VOA’s acting director, with the subject line “Social Media Violations.” Wuco asked Biberaj to review a document, which was not included in the records obtained by American Oversight, and to meet with him to discuss the “recommended courses of action.”

On Oct. 2, Pack sent a policy memo to all of USAGM’s subsidiary networks titled “Guidance on Conflicts of Interest.” In the memo, Pack wrote, “Recent events require explanation of the following examples, which in some cases, constitute a conflict of interest that can only be remedied by recusal.” One of those examples said that VOA journalists may not cover government actions that could potentially affect them, adding that “a journalist who is working in the United States on a J-1 visa must follow normal procedures and recuse themselves from any story involving J-1 visas.”

In an Oct. 19 email, Newman sent Pack a “recommendation for immediate action regarding a J-1 visa request.” Pack responded that he agreed with Newman’s recommendation and wrote, “We should provide an explanation, similar to your memo, when we decline.”

Transition to the Biden Administration

On Oct. 8, 2020, Kligerman, Lennon, Tran, and three other suspended USAGM employees filed a whistleblower complaint against Pack and the agency, alleging that they were sidelined as political retaliation. In early January 2021, another group of whistleblowers accused Pack of further propagandizing USAGM during the final days of the Trump administration by planning to have then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo give a speech at VOA. During his nearly eight-month tenure at USAGM, Pack faced complaints from more than 30 whistleblowers.

In July 2021, a federal inspector general’s investigation exonerated the six employees who had been suspended and said that it appeared Pack had targeted employees deemed to be “disloyal” to Trump.

Pack resigned the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Biden appointed longtime journalist and former acting VOA Director Kelu Chao as USAGM’s acting CEO. Chao, who had been one of the whistleblowers who spoke out against Pack, approved stalled visa renewal applications the next week. 

In November 2021, Biden nominated Bennett, the former VOA director, to be the new CEO of USAGM.

Update (May 10, 2022)

In the spring of 2022, American Oversight obtained new communication records from the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) that further illustrate former CEO Michael Pack’s efforts to politicize the agency, including by rejecting foreign journalists’ visa renewal requests and hiring allies of President Donald Trump.

The documents include an email Pack sent to Frank Wuco in September 2020, in which Pack said the agency needed to “articulate a policy” on J-1 visa applications, “including a new clearance process [and] a search for American workers” at USAGM. 

Other records further illuminate the role Emily Newman played in the rejection of foreign journalists’ visa renewals. In August 2020, Newman sent emails to Wuco and Jonathan Bronitsky regarding the investigation into VOA reporter Bricio Segovia. In one email, she claimed that a journalist (likely Segovia, though the name was redacted) had violated USAGM’s social media policy and acted with an “obvious and egregious conflict of interest” regarding the visa renewal requests. Newman added that the journalist had “actively spoken against the Administration” on the issue.

Other emails reflect internal displeasure among employees at USAGM under Pack, as well as anxiety surrounding Pack’s refusal to renew foreign journalists’ visas.