Voice of America Information War Lost: From Malfeasance To Perdition

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

BBG Watch Commentary

International and U.S. media do not frequently comment on U.S. international media agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, but when they do, articles about one of BBG’s U.S. taxpayer-funded federal media entity, the Voice of America (VOA), and the BBG’s federal management entity, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), suggest a state of managerial meltdown, dysfunction and multiple news failures by VOA.

READ: Voice of America removes anti-Azerbaijani program, By Seba Aghayeva, Trend, October 30, 2014.

SEBA AGHAYEVA, TREND: “Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry responded to a program of the Voice of America (VOA) on the fictional regime created in Azerbaijan’s occupied territories, and the Azerbaijani Embassy in the US sent a protest letter to the VOA management, the acting head of the press service of Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry Hikmet Hajiyev told Trend Oct. 30. (…) The VOA Director David Ensor’s response included apologies for this program, Hajiyev said. (…) In the letter, David Ensor expressed regret that the video violated the standards that the VOA is basing on(…)”

Under the current management, the Voice of America also posted online in 2012 a fake interview with prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

READ: Russian Accuses Voice Of America Of Fake Interview, By Michelle Kelemen, NPR, February 20, 2012.

MICHELLE KELEMEN, NPR: VOA director David Ensor apologized for the incident and said the Russian service has tightened its procedures.’But you know in the digital age, it is increasingly difficult sometimes to know who it is you are in contact with,’ he says. ‘And in Russia, there are a number of entities — including some connected with the Kremlin — that make a business of trying to confuse the image of people like Mr. Navalny, by impersonating him and doing various things. So we may have been scammed, but we may never know for sure’.”

VOA had removed the fake interview, as it had to remove its fictional report about Azerbaijan.

These old and new news failures, including the most recent poor VOA coverage of U.S. mid-term elections, also caught the attention of Joe Davidson who writes the Federal Diary, a Washington Post column about the federal workplace.

Davidson’s recent column deals largely with management failures at the Voice of America, the International Broadcasting Bureau and the third federal BBG entity, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) which is in charge of Radio and TV Marti.

READ: Agency few Americans use generates controversy, this time with contractors, By Joe Davidson, The Washington Post, November 24, 2014.

JOE DAVIDSON, WASHINGTON POST: “Its [VOA’s] election night coverage three weeks ago was the target of derisive comments on BBG Watch, an online publication by current and former employees. Year after year, including this one, the BBG is a loser on key employee survey questions (…)”

COMMENT for WASHINGTON POST from pterostilbene: “I was on staff at the Voice Of America for 29 years. The many contractors (some of whom toiled for many years) did exactly the same jobs as staff … sometimes better. They got no Social Security, pensions, health insurance or job security. It was and is a disgraceful exploitation of talent and loyalty.”

Joe Davidson’s column and management failures at VOA and IBB are the subject of the latest commentary from The Federalist, one of our regular contributors.

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Voice of America Information War Lost: From Malfeasance To Perdition

By The Federalist

What is Job One of a Federal agency that is generally regarded as dysfunctional and defunct?

The answer: Controversy. And plenty of it, all the time.

Recently, Joe Davidson of the Washington Post reported on one (among many) of the major issues the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) cannot come to grips with: contractors for its broadcasting operations (“Agency few Americans use generates controversy, this time with contractors,” November 24, 2014).

An agency that can “gin up” controversy as Mr. Davidson aptly describes it (and does so on a regular basis) relegates its stated mission to minor status. The end result: a failed agency, a failed mission.

The situation is so bad that the Congress has had to step in with proposed bipartisan reform legislation (H.R. 4490) to slam the brakes on runaway failure.

 

[The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, which unanimously approved the bill, has a special page devoted to H.R. 4490. As of Dec. 1, 2014, the page shows 8,745 Facebook “Likes,” which is thousands more “Likes” than VOA news reports show on the VOA website — yet another clear proof of VOA management’s failure to engage international audiences in the digital age. The bipartisan bill has been approved unanimously in a voice vote by the full House of Representatives and is now awaiting further legislative action in the U.S. Senate.]

 

Without this legislation, this agency cannot and will not affirmatively correct itself. Waste and abuse are so rampant as to become institutionalized. Without this legislation, the next step in the process is to close the agency and do so with good cause, to be followed by reconstructing US Government international broadcasting to reclaim competency and credibility in its mission and justify spending American taxpayer money in the effort.

With each passing day, this is the reality that becomes much more necessary.

BBG Watch has been reporting on the contractor issue for some time. In its most recent post, it headlines the issue, “Washington Post expanded column offers new details on Voice of America contracting scandal,” November 24, 2014, a reference to the Davidson article.

As an isolated act, the label of “scandal” would apply. But in our view, the agency has gone so far into the abyss of dysfunction that “scandal” doesn’t really capture the agency’s dire condition.

In this and other egregious activities, the agency demonstrates what we believe to be are patterns of malfeasance.

 

To summarize: an Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report considered the contracting out issue. In its findings, the report noted that the agency exceeded its regulatory authority by hiring in excess of a government limit of 60 contractors working for the agency. The number of contractors the agency has on staff is approximately 660.

 

Measuring Intent

 

The agency maintains a staffing pattern and organizational chart. It shows in great detail how the agency is structured.

Examining this staffing pattern/organizational chart would reveal that the agency has an “Office of Contracts,” or similarly named function which would be specifically charged with letting contracts to individuals or firms to perform services for the agency. This office would have an official designated as a “chief,” “director” or “deputy director” or similar title of authority to oversee its operations.

In addition, the agency has an Office of the General Counsel staffed by lawyers. One of the presumed duties of this office would be to determine whether or not the agency is in compliance with laws, rules and regulations applied generally throughout the Federal Government and/or specifically to this agency.

Taking this into consideration, it is inconceivable that an overage of this magnitude in the number of contractors the agency could hire would have gone unnoticed.

In short, this isn’t something “accidental” or pedestrian. It has a beginning, a progression, an evolution of agency officials making decisions and implementing them. Memos are written, meetings held, emails exchanged, actions signed off. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Things are done “by committee.”

This issue has also gotten on the radar of the Internal Revenue Service. In addition to the overage in the number of contractors, it has also been determined that the agency is in arrears in the amount of withholding taxes and other monies it has not properly deducted from payments made to contractors.

 

There is also the view that in the agency’s manner and method of using contractors, these individuals are, in effect, full-time employees, based on hours worked and other measurements.

 

In addition, there have been issues of untimely payments made to contractors which in some cases have resulted in some individuals not being able to make payments on mortgages, rents and car loans.

Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that circumstances like this do not come about by accident. They come about through intent, a process and/or the breakdown of a process.

Studying the agency’s actions there develops a sense, if not the reality, that it operates from a position that it is above and beyond the law: that statutory or regulatory limitations are to be ignored unless and until compliance is ordered.

In the process, the cumulative effect is a victimization of agency employees and contractors as described above. Indeed, agency employees have used the agency acronym “VOA” not to describe the agency by name but to describe themselves as “Victims Of Abuse.”

The agency’s approach to its personnel practices is callous, cold-blooded and well outside the parameters of professional conduct and ethics. The agency has developed  a long history in this regard, going back to the Hartman class action case against the agency (in the hiring/promotion of women) or the annual Federal employee workplace surveys that have the agency at or near the bottom of Federal agencies of its size – as it always has been since the surveys began years ago. Add to this endless litigation against employees and the main employee union, AFGE Local 1812, over a variety of personnel issues. The net effect: a systemic pattern of turning employees into victims.

[READ: Justice to Pay $508 Million in Discrimination Suit, By By Bill Miller and David A. Vise, The Washington Post, March 22, 2000.

BILL MILLER and DAVID A. VISE, WASHINGTON POST“The Justice Department has agreed to pay $508 million to settle a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by women against the U.S. Information Agency and Voice of America, the largest award ever paid by the federal government in an employment discrimination case.”]

Importantly and for decades, it is evident that agency officials revel in a lack of accountability. Aside from the Congress, no one inside the Cohen Building, including the BBG [with the notable exception of former BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe who had exposed numerous examples of mismanagement], has been willing or able to assert authority and rein in the gross excesses in how agency officials conduct agency operations. This goes a long way to explain the agency officials and their dismissive and contemptuous “business as usual” approach.

With the revelations of abuse of Federal regulations and the like, the agency now appears intent upon a sleight of hand of sorts to do an end-around these regulations.

The latest twist on the situation has the agency proposing to use an outside firm as a “contractor” and have the individual contractors be “employees” of the firm. In typical dysfunctional and defunct fashion, this creates more problems than it solves, including that 660 number of individual contractors.

In addition to the immediate regulatory issue there is another important motivation lurking on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building:

Senior agency officials desperately want the agency’s career workforce to be de-Federalized: no more career employees (except for the senior officials, of course, who dearly want to protect their benefits), no more Federal employee unions (the last line of defense for American taxpayers and congressional committees with oversight responsibilities for this agency). These senior officials would like this change very much. With the management record being what it is, such a change would facilitate even more rampant, runaway abuse of its workforce.

 

How does the agency’s mission figure into this contractor debacle?

 

On November 5, 2014 a group of contractors sent a letter to Jeffrey Shell, the BBG Chairman. The letter is referenced in the Davidson column and also appears in its entirety on the BBG Watch website and can be reviewed there.

The letter spells out what the contractors see as the negative consequences created by agency mismanagement. They are grouped by headings:

 

  • Bad for BBG
  • Bad for Contractors
  • Bad for Taxpayers

 

We will not examine these points in detail here. Suffice to say, as a description of senior agency officials, it captures what they have contributed to the agency’s dysfunction and mission failure. It is by no means a full picture, but gets to the heart of negative consequences resulting from management decisions and actions.

 

Bureaucratic “Blackmail” And “Hostage Taking”

 

As reported in the Davidson column and BBG Watch, in a December 9, 2013 memo to the BBG, Marie Lennon, who encumbers the chief of staff position for the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), addresses the prospect of a staffing agency for supplying contractors suggesting, “(it) would likely cost the agency an additional 30 percent on average for each contractor due to overhead costs for the firm itself.” An additional memo from Lennon in January 2014 states that using a personnel agency would up costs to, “18-30 percent more than current expenditures.”

In mulling this over, one conclusion to reach is, figuratively, these memos represent a form of bureaucratic hostage taking:

In a typically dysfunctional and defunct fashion, these memos make a bad situation worse. In effect, these memos drag the BBG into a problem that senior career officials created.

Once made aware of the problem, the BBG now has one of two choices: (a) fix the problem or (b) become complicit in the problem itself. In typical senior agency bureaucratic fashion, these memos offer no solutions and create more problems – the only things these bureaucrats seem to excel in, other than rewarding themselves with bonuses over the years and increasing the number of IBB staff positions while cutting broadcasts and programming jobs.

Once again, a handful of senior agency officials are holding the BBG, the Congress, the agency’s mission, a group of its workers and American taxpayers hostage to their defiance of established regulations and the consequences of its actions on the agency’s mission.

 

Victimization.

 

As Mr. Davidson points out, “then something – or someone – has to give.”

And he is right: because issues like this have a domino effect on many other aspects of the agency’s operations.

The net result: senior agency officials have created critical mass for implosion.

 

In order to promote the efficiency of the Federal Service, this agency in its current form has to go. Sooner is preferable to later. This agency’s blatant disregard for law, rule and regulation cannot be condoned nor tolerated.

 

Across the board, these officials have compromised the integrity of this agency, administratively and operationally.

And stepping onto center stage of this travesty comes Andrew Lack; the agency’s designated Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

We are skeptical of the impact Andrew Lack can have on this agency’s implosion. As we have stated before, this is not a reflection on Mr. Lack. It is a complete reflection on the state of the agency and those who run it with malfeasance seemingly as its core operating model. Indeed, we rather doubt that any one individual, living or dead, can salvage this agency from inside the Cohen Building.

No doubt, Mr. Lack will be given time to “prove himself.” Mr. Lack doesn’t have to prove himself. His credentials speak for themselves.

Rather, it is the agency that has to prove itself.

Indeed, Mr. Lack may well come to think of the Cohen Building as a building of the damned: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. A building populated by career obstructionists. A place well beyond redemption in its current organizational schematic, a monument to perdition.

The situation will only be remedied by external power and authority that is substantially greater than that of the agency and its cabal of career bureaucrats. That power resides, in part, in the Congress and the reform legislation crafted by staff and passed by lawmakers.

 

It’s time to start over.

 

The Federalist

November 2014

 

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