BBG Watch Commentary
RT USA, the English language website of Russia’s overseas propaganda media outlet RT, is reporting on a $400 million class action lawsuit filed Monday in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims against the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) over personnel and contracting practices overseen by top agency officials in recent years.
A U.S. legal information website, Law360, reported Wednesday that plaintiffs in the latest class action lawsuit allege that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has implemented a system of using “Purchase Order Vendors” (POVs) “for services indistinguishable from those of direct employees, to avoid a 30 percent budget increase from providing the lawful wages, paid leave, workers compensation, and tax contributions the workers are owed.” BBG Watch also had a report.
The fact that RT has picked up this story is not surprising. It reflects badly on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the United States that BBG executives have allegedly exploited and treated poorly hundreds of contract employees who are claimed to be underpaid, denied employment benefits and work without legal protections available to federal employees who do the same jobs. These alleged violations occurred mainly at the Voice of America (VOA).
The BBG could have easily avoided this lawsuit. BBG members had been warned about these practices many times in the past. BBG Watch had numerous articles on this issue as did the American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812, which represents many of BBG’s federal employees. In July 2014, AFGE Local 1812 posted this commentary on its union website:
AFGE LOCAL 1812: “A September 2013 preliminary report, obtained by the Union, reveals some of the information resulting from an investigation of the Agency by the Office of the Inspector General: in violation of the law, the Agency had hired 663 contractors when less than 10% of that number had been authorized under applicable legislation. The OIG was not alone in finding fault with Agency contractor practices. The IRS determined that these contractors met the criteria for employee status. These contractors were given work schedules in the same manner as employees, managed in the same manner as employees, and supervised in the same manner as employees; however, the Agency did not provide these contractors with employee benefits, these contractors were not accorded the protections of labor law pertaining to employees, nor did the Agency fulfill its obligation regarding payroll deductions, withholding, and payment of an employer’s portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes on behalf of these ‘contractors’.
It is interesting to note that the Washington bureau of the Voice of Russia had similar violations of law in their hiring of contractors, and that bureau was shut down.”
A former BBG member, Ambassador Victor Ashe, spoke about such issues publicly and urged remedial action. The BBG bureaucrats reportedly reacted to his criticism and warnings by reportedly instigating an anonymous campaign to undermine his reputation with false accusations. They have also reportedly launched various direct and indirect attacks on BBG Watch for reporting on these and similar management abuses.
These alleged practices and problems do not appear to be limited to BBG contract employees in Washington, DC. Some categories of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) foreign-born journalists also claim that they are treated as second-class citizens and denied some rights and opportunities available to RFE/RL’s Czech and American employees.
RT is not the only foreign media outlet reporting on these problems. While RT seems to be doing this with some glee, Czech media, Czech politicians and human rights organizations friendly to the United States, as well as media in other countries to which RFE/RL directs its programs, have pointed out with sadness the apparent hypocrisy of a U.S. taxpayer-funded news organization originating news reports and commentaries on human rights and labor rights abuses abroad while its own management allegedly discriminates against and poorly treats some of its own foreign-born employees. Foreign human rights organizations have sent protest letters the BBG.
New BBG CEO John Lansing apparently learned about these issues first hand and perhaps for the first time several weeks ago while he and one of BBG’s top executives Jeff Trimble, who had been previously also an RFE/RL executive, were at the Prague airport awaiting for a flight home after Mr. Lansing’s first visit to the RFE/RL headquarters in the Czech Republic. A former RFE/RL journalist Anna Karapetian who was at the airport at the same time reportedly recognized Mr. Lansing and approached him while he was momentarily alone. According to our sources in Prague, she was able to tell him how she and her colleague, Croatian citizen Snjezana Pelivan had been arbitrarily fired (Anna Karapetian was fired in 2006) after years of exemplary service and denied any formal process to challenge their dismissal. Aggrieved RFE/RL journalists claim that RFE/RL and BBG management rely on the communist-era Czech law, which applied largely to Soviet companies operating in communist Czechoslovakia, to deny certain rights and benefits to certain classes of foreign-born contract employees.
According to our sources, Ms. Pelivan and Ms. Karapetian were unsuccessful in challenging their dismissal in Czech courts. Their appeal to the European Court of Human Rights was also unsuccessful because the court apparently has no jurisdiction over labor disputes, sources told us. But their case has received wide attention and support among some Czech, Croatian and Armenian politicians, media and human rights organizations. Most other foreign-born RFE/RL contract employees who reportedly have been treated the same way as Ms. Karapetian and Ms. Pelivan are afraid to challenge management decisions out of fear of losing their severance pay.
It appears that the BBG is essentially treating contract employees in Washington the same way BBG and RFE/RL treat certain classes of contract employees in Prague, except that contractors in the U.S. have a much easier access to U.S. courts, our sources said.
According to our sources who spoke with Ms. Karapetian, Mr. Lansing appeared to listen intently and reportedly acknowledged in general that the BBG has an employee morale problem. But being very new to his job at that time, he did not make any concrete promises, our sources said.
Mr. Lansing has said on other occasions that respectful treatment of all employees is one of his highest priorities.
Some BBG employees, however, are concerned that Mr. Lansing is forced to rely on managers who may not be motivated to change an environment and management culture which they helped to create and in which they have done well for themselves.
READ RT USA REPORT: Misclassified: BBG faces $400mn lawsuit over contracting practices, report claims — RT USA, December 23, 2015