BBG Watch Commentary

The failing bureaucracy of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has been largely successful so far in covering up its bungling of BBG Chairman Jeff Shell’s interrupted trip to Russia and conflict of interest questions connected with his travel. The BBG put out misleading and deceptive press releases, which omitted any controversial information, as did BBG-managed Voice of America (VOA) in its news report about the incident involving Mr. Shell and Vladimir Putin’s government. But while mainstream U.S. media have been deceived or have not yet focused on the critical parts of the story, critics of the BBG on Capitol Hill were some of the first ones to notice the strange circumstances behind Mr. Shell’s interrupted travel to Moscow, as did the State Department and the White House.

“I’m sure the Russians are looking for reasons to embarrass and harass USG representatives; recent press reporting is filled with such examples. It is my understanding, however, that Chairman Shell was traveling on a tourist passport and visa because his primary purpose for travel was official NBC business,” a congressional staffer told BBG Watch. “Again, if true, that would be yet another example of how BBG Board members’ private professions raise conflict of interest issues. All the more reason to finally do away with the Board,” the congressional source added.

Information about the conflict of interest and mixing of private business with U.S. government business aspects of Jeff Shell’s trip to Russia could have been gleaned from U.S. State Department’s and White House’s press briefings, but reports by The Washington Post (link), The New York Times (link), Los Angeles Times (link), The Hollywood Reporter (link) and Los Angeles Business Journal (link) failed to explore any controversial issues. There is evidence, however, that Secretary of State John Kerry with the rest of the Obama Administration were embarrassed by Mr. Shell, his pick for BBG CEO John Lansing, and the BBG bureaucracy which allowed this ill-advised trip to proceed. The Obama Administration and the Agency had been embarrassed earlier by Mr. Shell’s pick of Andy Lack to be the BBG’s CEO. While Andy Lack was in some respects well qualified for the job, he abruptly left for a better position at NBC News within a few weeks of his appointment. John Lansing was selected later to fill the same BBG position.

BBG Chairman Jeff Shell was exposed trying to do private business in President Putin’s Russia for the company he works for while also leading the federal agency in charge of supporting freedom and democracy and wanting at the same time to represent the United States on a visit Russia.

Instead of being advised to avoid such travel altogether, not to travel to Russia using his regular passport instead of his official one and, above all, to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest, Mr. Shell was apparently advised to proceed to Moscow by his own pick for BBG CEO, Mr. John Lansing who has no prior experience in U.S. government service, U.S. international media, public diplomacy or foreign policy. The Russian government detained and expelled Mr. Shell, to which Mr. Lansing replied with a statement rightly condemning the rude expulsion but which omitted critical details and material facts, such as Mr. Shell’s apparent plan to mix private and U.S. government business in Russia or the fact that while Mr. Shell was expelled by the Putin government, Mr. Lansing and BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) deputy director Jeff Trimble were allowed to enter Russia. A Voice of America report on the expulsion of Mr. Shell was equally short on detail, misleading and deceptive. Conflict of interest issues were completely ignored.

Any reporter who bothered to read the spokesman’s comments during the State Department’s press briefing which covered the controversy over Jeff Shell’s trip to Moscow could have seen that not everything was kosher from the State Department’s perspective.

Mark C. Toner, Deputy Spokesperson, U.S. State Department, Daily Press Briefing, Washington, DC, July 13, 2016

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner


QUESTION: Different issue.


QUESTION: And this is Russia.


QUESTION: And what is your understanding of what happened to the head – the Broadcasting Board of Governors chairman? Have you made representations to the Russians? Will this come up when the Secretary is there – is it tomorrow or Friday?

MR TONER: So a couple of things on that, Matt. First of all, we’re still, frankly, in the process of sorting through all the details of what happened yesterday, or last night, and the timing of what occurred. But obviously, everybody’s seen the reports. You know also that the Broadcasting Board of Governors did issue a statement on the matter. I’d refer you to that and to them for additional details. I’m limited here. And I’m limited because we’ve not yet received a Privacy Act waiver. Once I do, I’ll be able to say a bit more but not a whole lot more about the incident and about the case.


MR TONER: I said a little bit. And I did —

QUESTION: So the Privacy Act now applies to officials – government – all right, it’s an independent government agency and I realize it is kind of a part – it is a part-time job.

MR TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: But he still was traveling in his official capacity. The BBG, as you noted, put out a statement. It said that the other people who were with him on this delegation went to the embassy, spoke to Ambassador Tefft, and then they thanked Ambassador Tefft and the Department back here for their urgent —

MR TONER: So I was going to finish that.

QUESTION: Oh, okay, I thought you were done.

MR TONER: I was – allow me to go on a little bit further and say —

QUESTION: I’m sorry. I thought you were done.

MR TONER: That’s okay. No worries. We were, when alerted – our embassy in Moscow – to what was happening and to the incident, we did obviously go and assist Chairman Shell. But your question highlights some of the ongoing questions and details that we’re trying to sort through, which is in exactly what capacity he was travelling. And I have to stop there because you said he is – it is a role that he plays. He is also a private citizen.

QUESTION: Well, it’s my understanding that he was supposed to go to a reception or to ceremony today marking the – an anniversary for Radio Liberty in Moscow. That would seem to me that he was doing this not in his private capacity at NBCUniversal but rather in his capacity as chairman of the BBG.

MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to read too much into this and I don’t want to – I just – all I’m trying to say, Matt, is I don’t have full Privacy Act clearance to go any further. And frankly, we’re still trying to sort through the details of what actually happened. As to why he was denied, that’s really something for the Russians to speak to. Whether we raised our concerns with the Russians – we did.

QUESTION: You did?

MR TONER: And whether it will come up with Secretary Kerry, I don’t know.

QUESTION: Okay. The Russians have said that the reason that he was denied entry was because he was put on an expanded stop list that was expanded because you guys expanded sanctions against individual Russians. Did they – have they not given you that explanation? They made it publicly.

MR TONER: Have they made that publicly?

QUESTION: The foreign ministry.

MR TONER: Well, look, Matt, I’m not going to – again, if they’ve said publicly, they’ve offered their explanation. I said it’s not for us to explain what happened to him. It’s for them to speak to why they refused his entry.

QUESTION: Well, I’m not really asking you to explain what happened to him.


QUESTION: I would like to know whether or not you disagree with what happened to him. When you say you express your concerns, did you —

MR TONER: Well, look, we’re concerned.

QUESTION: — did you protest it?

MR TONER: We expressed our concerns about what happened. We’re still trying to see – sort through the precise details of what happened, and why he was refused. I’m aware of some of the public comments that they’ve made, certainly. And with regard to that public reason that they gave, all I’ll say to that is, look, the appropriate response for Russia to any of our sanctions would be to address the concerns on which our sanctions are based and not to do a tit-for-tat.


MR TONER: You’re saying that – you’re saying that public – that the public response that he gave, that he was put on a no-fly list or a no-entry list —

QUESTION: Yes, both – both countries do this tit-for-tat all the time. You guys never seem to – when they – why are you asking them to do what you guys won’t do?

MR TONER: Our sanctions are —

QUESTION: I mean, there were just two – four diplomats, two from each side, expelled from each of the countries last week. This happens on and – happens over and over again. It doesn’t seem like any – is that really a reasonable or a logical expectation?

MR TONER: Well, it is in the sense of if Russia wants the sanctions lifted – all the sanctions – we’ve spelled out a clear way by which those sanctions can be lifted. So if they meet those commitments and they meet those expectations, then they can be lifted.

QUESTION: Well, is it fair to say that you have a problem with this guy not being able to get in to the country?

MR TONER: It’s fair to say we have concerns about what happened, yes.

QUESTION: All right.


MR TONER: Yeah, please.

MR TONER: Do you think – I mean, given the increasing diplomatic tensions going on, not only the fact that you expelled some of theirs, but this is now the latest in a long list that’s been going on now for several weeks, do you really think this is business as usual between the countries? I mean, there’s a lot festering —

MR TONER: I wouldn’t use that term.

QUESTION: There’s a lot festering underneath here, and —

MR TONER: But I wouldn’t use that term. I mean, look, we’re – the Secretary is traveling to Moscow and he’s been very clear what the goal is, and that is to try to resuscitate the cessation of hostilities and the fact that we are yet again going to Russia to try to get its buy-in on a process that can lead to a nationwide ceasefire, or a cessation of hostilities. We haven’t seen that thus far, but we’re having another go at this. The Secretary has been very clear about the fact that they’ve not lived up to their commitments so far in terms of exerting influence on the regime to stop these ongoing attacks on opposition forces who are adhering to the cessation of hostilities. And the overall effect of that is you’ve got ongoing violence, you don’t have a nationwide cessation of hostilities that all these parties have allegedly committed to and the regime has committed to, and that just stymies the political process, and you’ve just got – you – so you can’t go forward on this, and we need to go forward.