Secretive BBG staff fails to carry out directives and advise the Board, helps draft gag resolution

BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Prague Meeting, June 2012

At the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) board meeting, held last week at the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Prague, Czech Republic, some board members and senior staffers tried to limit public access to information about U.S. international broadcasting by defending the need for confidentiality and proposing a resolution to prevent BBG members from talking to members of Congress, media, and NGOs about “deliberative and pre-decisional” discussions among board members and with their staff.

BBG Watch will report later in greater detail about the unprecedented attempt to impose a gag rule on BBG members. We will make available online transcripts of the relevant portions of the meeting. Video and audio can already be accessed online on the BBG official website.

These attempts to limit transparency and accountability were strongly opposed by Governor Victor Ashe who managed, with some help from Governors Michael Meehan and Susan McCue and Under Secretary Sonenshine, to modify the original proposal’s draconian restrictions on the First Amendment protections of free speech. During the meeting, Ashe asked the staff several pointed questions about possible waste of government resources. Some of his questions to senior managers focused on reports of poor employee morale at the BBG and others raised the possibility that some managers may be engaging in private business on official time. BBG Watch is gathering information for stories dealing with these issues.

BBG member Victor Ashe

Victor Ashe

Ashe, a former mayor of Knoxville and former U.S. Ambassador to Poland, is believed to be the only attorney with an active law license among the current board members. Ashe insisted, among other things, that the gag resolution, which was eventually approved unanimously, include a clause confirming the protection of the rights of whistleblowers at the BBG and its broadcasting organizations. In several decades of public service at state and federal level, Ashe has been a strong supporter of open government.

His calls for greater transparency and accountability at the BBG have made him very unpopular among some BBG members and the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executive staff. Sources told BBG Watch that the aim of the gag resolution was to prevent Ashe from sharing his concerns with members of Congress and Congressional staffers, while BBG/IBB staffers would be free to sell their ideas on Capitol Hill. The resolution was drafted in secret and was not vetted by the BBG’s Governance Committee, which would be the normal procedure. It was shown to some of the BBG members only hours before the meeting in Prague.

The non-disclosure resolution is believed to be a joint effort of BBG Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton, Alternative Presiding Governor Dennis Mulhaupt and the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executive staff, sources told BBG Watch. They identified the BBG’s Deputy General Counsel Paul Kollmer-Dorsey as one of the drafters of the resolution.

According to these sources, some BBG members and BBG/IBB senior staffers are particularly upset by media reports that exposed humiliating bipartisan rebukes they received in Congress on their strategic plan, their unsuccessful attempt to end Voice of America broadcasts to China and Tibet, and their failure to get Congress to remove the Smith-Mundt Act restrictions on domestic distribution of BBG programs due to a firestorm of public criticism.

Tibetans protesting at BBG's Michael Lynton's Sony office in Los Angeles against silencing of Voice of America radio broadcasts to Tibet by the Broadcasting Board of Governors

Tibetans protesting at BBG's Michael Lynton's Sony office in Los Angeles against silencing of Voice of America radio broadcasts to Tibet by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

BBG Watch reports has exposed numerous examples of mismanagement at the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its various elements, as well as publicized Congressional and other criticism of BBG officials. While some BBG members tried to allude to foreign policy and national security considerations for the resolution, media reports in publications such as BBG Watch exposed only their internal bureaucratic failures, waste of government resources, and non-responsiveness to Congressional directives.

According to BBG Watch sources, Michael Lynton was upset by the publication of his response to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s letter accusing the BBG of being “opaque in its decision making and incredibility tone deaf to Congressional priorities.” Lynton was also a target of a demonstration by Tibetan human rights activists at the headquarters of Sony Pictures Entertainment in Los Angeles, where is is the chairman and CEO.

Salaries and benefits of top level BBG Grantee managers can be searched using IRS website or FoundationCenter.org search.

Salaries and benefits of top level BBG Grantee managers can be searched using IRS website or FoundationCenter.org search.

Prior to the discussion on the non-disclosure resolution, Governor Ashe questioned the lack of responsiveness of the BBG/IBB staff to the board’s directives. The IRS 990 Form information, to which Governor Ashe referred to in his comments at the beginning of the board meeting in Prague, can be searched HERE. They can also be found on the IRS website. We found FoundationCenter.org search easier to use, but in our initial search could not find recent IRS Form 990 filings for RFE/RL. We did find RFA and MBN forms.

GOVERNOR VICTOR H. ASHE: “Mr. Chairman, the minutes refer to that I had spoken and the Board had voted to put the Draft Consolidation Report on the website. In the minutes. It is my understanding that not all of the Consolidation Report was put on the website. The part relating to the salaries for the Grantee heads was deleted, or not put on. Am I correct in that understanding? Page 28. Or am I mistaken?”

ALTERNATIVE PRESIDING GOVERNOR DENNIS MULHAUPT: “Somebody from management have a…”

DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS LYNNE WEIL: ” Yes, I have part of the answer. Yes, there were two graphs that were excised due to sensitivities. That was a management-level decision.”

GOVERNOR VICTOR ASHE: “My question is: since the Board had voted to put it on, why did it not come back to the Board as to why at least one page as it relates to salaries — I assume it’s salaries — and, by the way, I should point out these salaries are available on the IRS 990 Form, and if any one is curious what Libby Liu, Steve Korn or Brian Conniff make, they need to only pull out the 990 Form from the IRS. There it is. Why would you take it out? One, why would we do it? And two, after the Board had directed that it be done, why was 90 percent of what the Board directed done and this portion was deleted and we were not told about it?”

INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING BUREAU DIRECTOR RICHARD LOBO: “Governor, I assume there was a sensitivity because of the salaries, and a decision was made at a senior staff level, which I signed off on, to perhaps save some embarrassment. Because it was not only the directors’ salaries, but other middle and senior manager salaries that were involved. And it was totally pre-decisional.”

GOVERNOR ASHE: “My question is: with the Board having voted to do it, why didn’t you at least advise us of that, come back to us?”

INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING BUREAU DIRECTOR RICHARD LOBO: “Governor, we should have, if you’d like, we can still put it on, Governor.”

RADIO FREE ASIA PRESIDENT LIBBY LIU: “One of our concerns at RFA was that having the benefits, especially the comparison information for the whole organization on the website, might affect our union negotiations, which we are going to renegotiate our collective bargaining agreement. We thought it was not appropriate to have that. And we noted that it was not published on BBG Watch. That it was not already in the public space.”

GOVERNOR MICHAEL MEEHAN: Libby Liu from RFA said that one of the concerns she has at Radio Free Asia is that if we put benefit information about other companies inside the U.S. international broadcasting on the website, which is not public information, that it will somehow adversely affect the company’s negotiations with the labor unions, since that information is not made public. I do concur with you that for public employees and their salaries, some are eminently findable. I am sympathetic to President Liu’s point in the middle of labor negotiations.”

ALTERNATIVE PRESIDING GOVERNOR DENNIS MULHAUPT: “Perhaps, offline we can find a solution that is acceptable to Governor Ashe and also be respectful of the need for confidentiality and embarrassment. Is that all right with you, Governor Ashe?”

GOVERNOR VICTOR ASHE: “Mr. Chairman, here is my concern. I think Ms. Liu makes some valid points. But I have a problem when the Board votes to do something, it’s like a discussion we had on Burma an hour ago, when the Board votes something and it doesn’t happen. All I’m saying there may come up to be very valid reasons why something didn’t happen, but someone ought to share them with the Board and let us know. Mr. Lobo apologized for not doing it and I accept his apology. All I’m saying is it should not happen again. Secondly, that portion of the salaries that’s available on the IRS Form 990 is available to anyone on this planet Earth who wants to go to the Internet and pull it up, including benefits, including bonuses. So why would be eliminate. The labor union can see that. But if there are other salaries at a lower level that are not included, that’s another issue.

ALTERNATIVE PRESIDING GOVERNOR DENNIS MULHAUPT: “I think your point is well taken.”

GOVERNOR VICTOR ASHE: It’s right there, so why are we hiding? What’s confidential about it? There is nothing confidential about what Steve Korn makes, Libby Liu makes, or Brian Conniff. It might not be enough, but it’s not confidential”

ALTERNATIVE PRESIDING GOVERNOR DENNIS MULHAUPT: “With that information, we’ll work to make information that should be available, available.”

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