McCaul raises concerns over USAGM ability to vet staff

WASHINGTON — The chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday outlined what he described as failures by the U.S. Agency for Global Media to adequately investigate allegations and whistleblower complaints.

A 73-page report described a three-year investigation into whistleblower complaints about an employee at the USAGM network Voice of America, or VOA, including allegations of falsifying credentials and the mishandling of a contract.

Chairman Michael McCaul, a Republican representative from Texas, said, “Given the important work of USAGM and VOA to provide accurate news around the world, I am extremely concerned about the agency’s serious investigative blunders despite the alarming complaints.”

McCaul described the case as “the tip of the iceberg” in a statement, and staff representing Republicans on the committee said on background that it feeds into previous concerns about whether the agency properly vets foreign-born staff. However, the report focuses on the investigation into one employee.

The report found “credible evidence” of wrongdoing, including that the employee in question did not hold a doctorate or equivalent from a French university as stated on a resume; mishandled a major contract; awarded “excessive” overtime pay to favored employees; and “faced persistent complaints” about an “abrasive leadership style.”

Because the incident involves a personnel issue at VOA, which does not typically comment on such matters, the network is not naming the employee.

The report further notes that an investigation under former President Donald Trump’s appointed leadership at VOA had found grounds to dismiss the senior staff member in 2021 after an investigation that included the handling of a $950,000 contract.

After a change in administration, the McCaul report notes, the termination was reversed, and the employee was moved to a new department.

An independent investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, or OSC, released in May 2023, described the case as a “particularly complex matter” and said it was “beyond the scope of this review to evaluate the merits of several allegations made against the individual; however, CEO Office involvement will be examined.”

The OSC added that the USAGM Labor and Employee Relations investigators tasked with looking into the allegations “faced intense pressure” to conclude in 2021 that the employee should be terminated.

The report by McCaul includes testimony and interviews with senior USAGM and VOA officials and staff. It states that once the agency was provided evidence to support the claims of falsified credentials, USAGM moved to issue a reprimand to the employee.

Staff representing Republicans on the committee, speaking to VOA on background, said that during the committee investigation, they found USAGM had failed to thoroughly investigate the whistleblower complaints and other issues regarding oversight and negligence.

The staff said the report’s findings and USAGM’s apparent failure to take appropriate action reflect wider and far-reaching concerns about the agency, including whether political bias played a role.

A statement emailed to VOA and attributed to USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett said her office “cannot comment on specific personnel matters.”

But, Bennett said, “We unequivocally reject the Committee’s allegations that the agency’s investigation of an employee’s background was politicized, corrupt or mismanaged in any way.”

Noting that the agency stands by its final decision in investigating complaints, the statement said its staff “made tremendous efforts to locate evidence relevant to the matter in question, and aggressively pursued every possible avenue to conduct a thorough investigation.”

Mark Zaid, an attorney who represents the employee in question, told VOA via email, “The Committee’s one-sided report continues an unexplained vendetta that has spanned two Administrations” against his client.

He charged the report included “many incomplete, misinterpreted and defamatory conclusions.”

But, Zaid said, he “agrees with the Committee on two things.”

“First, there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the equivalency of French and American Ph.D.s, including among various experts,” he said. “Second, USAGM has mishandled this investigation from the beginning, particularly by interfering with [the client’s] right to counsel and denying [the client’s] appropriate due process.”

He noted that “contrary to a footnote in the report,” USAGM did not share details with Zaid, in his capacity as the employee’s attorney, or keep him updated about what the agency was doing in regard to the McCaul investigation.

Members of McCaul’s staff told VOA on background that the committee intends no ill will toward the employee but that as a congressional oversight board it is their duty to investigate whistleblower complaints and follow the facts.

The main focus of the report is on whether the employee held an advanced degree, as stated on the person’s resume and on the VOA website. McCaul’s report says it was able to quickly establish three years ago that the credentials were incorrect.

Zaid told VOA that attorneys have “repeatedly provided documentation” to confirm the degree, and enough evidence exists to show the qualification “has been properly described.”

Gregory Meeks, the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement that called McCaul’s report “one-sided.” Meeks said, however, that USAGM should “address the Committee’s oversight questions and concerns.”

The findings in McCaul’s report serve as a case study of a wider problem, according to the committee staff, who spoke on background.

The report calls for the employee to be terminated as per the earlier Labor and Employee Relations investigation and for USAGM to rectify its vetting process.

“USAGM’s actions raise questions about the agency’s ability to vet its own staff, and I am extremely concerned Democrats who criticized the agency under the last administration have gone silent instead of working in good faith to serve Americans who deserve transparency and accountability,” McCaul said in a statement.

It requests the agency deliver a report to Congress on vetting procedures within 90 days.

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