BBG Watch Commentary
In a strongly-worded statement for the press, Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) only Republican member has accused top executives of BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), Director Richard Lobo and acting General Counsel Paul Kollmer-Dorsey, of wasting U.S. taxpayers’ money by refusing mediation of a lawsuit over reductions in force (RIF) of broadcasters in the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) which runs Radio and TV Marti. An impartial arbitrator and the Federal Labor Relations Board (FLRA) have ruled that the RIFs were illegal and ordered the agency to reinstate the employees and provide them with backpay. IBB officials refused to implement those rulings and appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
According to Ashe, IBB officials did not consult BBG members as to whether the court mediation service should be accepted or declined and, acting on their own, refused the mediation offer. IBB executive staff has been ignoring the BBG board on a number of critical agency issues, sources told BBG Watch, including the board’s attempt to hire a temporary chief of staff.
Ashe released the following statement on the OCB RIF lawsuit and actions of IBB executives:
“It is apparent that there is no serious interest by Dick Lobo or Paul Kollmer-Dorsey in solving the Office of Cuba Broadcasting lawsuit which has raked up $3 million plus in taxpayer exposure and may reach $5 million plus.”
“They even declined to consult the Board on whether BBG should accept or decline the court mediation service and proceeded to refuse the offer so the trial proceeds. BBG has lost at every step in the way over 3 years. BBG is getting inadequate legal advice and terrible public relations advice while running the meter for the American taxpayer,” Victor Ashe said today.
Ashe also said that prolonging the hardships which RIFed OCB employees are enduring is “shameful.”
Five U.S. Presidents, beginning with President Ronald Reagan, have named Ashe to different federal positions. He is the first former Ambassador and local elected official to serve on the BBG.Ashe was a mayor of Knoxville and U.S. Ambassador to Poland.
Ashe may soon be leaving his BBG post, however, due to what many believe is a bureaucratic intrigue and revenge by IBB officials. They are suspected to be behind attempts to smear his reputation in Washington and to get the White House to request his replacement even though the bipartisan board will not have in the near future the required four Republican members. The board also lacks a quorum and is unable to exercise control over IBB executive staff.
Ashe is widely admired by BBG employees for his efforts to improve working conditions and to increase management’s accountability and transparency. He lists his email address and telephone number on the BBG website and is credited with getting BBG board meetings streamed live online and for allowing members to the public to make statements.
The BBG employee union, AFGE Local 1812, and outside advocates for U.S. international broadcasting, including the nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) have applauded Ashe’s actions on the BBG board, as well as those of his Democratic board colleagues Susan McCue and Michael Meehan.
The management team in charge of the agency, on the other hand, has been rated in numerous Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) as being the worst in the entire federal government because of poor leadership and record low employee morale.
In late 2009 the Office of Cuba Broadcasting conducted a reduction in force (RIF) and sixteen employees represented by AFGE Local 1812 at Radio/TV Marti were thrown out of work. The employees believed that the RIF was the work of the then management in order to retaliate against employees who had reported wrong-doing at the OCB to the Congress and the Inspector General.
An impartial Arbitrator concurred. In 2010, the union representing the OCB employees filed a grievance that eventually went to arbitration. In 2011, in an 85-page decision, Arbitrator Suzanne Butler found that the RIF was conducted unnecessarily and that, in fact, the management and the Agency had conducted the RIF for retaliatory reasons. Arbitrator Butler ordered that the employees be rehired and that they be provided with back pay. At this point, the OCB, with assistance from officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) appealed the decision to the Federal Labor Relations Board (FLRA) which again ruled against the OCB and supported the Arbitrator’s decision. Instead of implementing Arbitrator Butler’s decision, Agency officials then appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia although there is no avenue to appeal this decision to the Court. In the meantime, the employees must wait for the Court to make a ruling that indeed, the Court does not have jurisdiction. The affected employees have been out of their jobs for nearly four years.
During the arbitration, Agency officials claimed that there was no malice directed against these employees and that the RIF was just an unfortunate necessity. Since the time they were RIFed, several of the employees deprived of their livelihood by what the Arbitrator ruled was an illegally-conducted RIF have fallen upon hard times. Some have applied numerous times for positions for which they were qualified with both the OCB and the Voice of America (VOA) only to be turned down for the positions. Attached to all sixteen of the broadcasters involved in that unnecessary reduction-in-force in 2009, there is a human story.
Roxana Romero was one of those employees and describes what her life has been like as a result of being illegally RIFed.
“Perhaps it was naiveté on my part, but I ALWAYS thought my position as TV Marti’s New York-based correspondent would survive the RIF. I was working out of the number one news market covering the same stories as the big networks and international news agencies: everything from the United Nations Security Council to the aftermath of 9/11, and everything in between. I was the only multi-media employee: self-assigning stories, interviewing subjects, shooting video, writing, translating, editing, and forwarding a daily news package to our studios in Miami. Ahh, but alas, all my hard work, commitment to my craft, and ten-plus years of devotion that were duly noted with numerous recognitions and favorable employee evaluations would not survive the former Director’s wrath!
That was four years ago. I was a lot more trusting then, even though I was 38 at the time. Apparently, I always looked at life and its circumstances through rose-colored glasses. Today, it’s tough to see beyond the grey film. The post-RIF financial and emotional hardships continue to have an astronomical impact on my life. I moved back to Miami months after I was laid off because I couldn’t find a job, and simply could not survive on unemployment wages. I’ve been hospitalized twice in the past three years, diagnosed with migraine clusters brought upon by stress. I’ve gained tons of weight. I lost my property to a short sale. I’ve had to move countless times because I found it difficult to afford the rent.
Yet, despite the setbacks, I’ve tried to move beyond this almost four-year nightmare and pave the way for a better future for myself and my family. But finding a job, despite my extensive experience across many platforms, has proven grueling, especially at the BBG. I’ve applied to a number of jobs within the Agency, including the OCB. My applications have continuously been rejected. Recently, I was interviewed by the VOA-LATAM for the International Broadcaster (Multimedia) (Spanish) position in New York. Even though the responsibilities mirrored the ones I carried out for TV Marti while working in Manhattan, the selecting office indicated that I was “not selected for the position.” People less qualified than I have been hired as contractors or have been switched to other departments to save their employment in the eventuality of a RIF. One full-time position for which my qualifications exceeded the requirements was actually eliminated and given to a contractor.
I finally found a part-time job as a media relations writer in academia. In this capacity, I’ve met two recently-hired contractors working as reporters at the OCB, and an anchor who was brought in not long after the RIF. This month, OCB hired a producer for television. This is all occurring at time of sequestration and the Federal Government conducting furloughs across the board. TV Marti’s news operations were supposedly eliminated because of budgetary constraints. Yet, there is anecdotal evidence that full-time employees and contractors are flying to South America, the Caribbean, and all over the world to cover stories. If OCB needed contractors to fill air time, why didn’t it look to the RIFed employees like me who dedicated their professional careers to upholding OCB’s mission to bring fair and objective news to Cubans on the island?
In spite of all this, I have complete confidence that we will come out victorious once again, all the injustices will be corrected, and the rule of law will prevail. When that moment comes, the real losers will be the taxpayers. They will be the ones who will have to foot the bill for millions of dollars in totally unnecessary expenditures brought about by a group of high-level bureaucrats going to extremes to not admit any wrong-doing, and to spend money that’s not coming out of their own pockets!”