BBG Watch Commentary

Congressional Reform Needed: BBG Members Must Be Prohibited From Doing Private Business in Russia or China


Jeff Shell and former BBG CEO Andy Lack
Jeff Shell and former BBG CEO Andy Lack

The recent incident in Moscow involving the Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors Mr. Jeff Shell is a perfect example as to why the Chairman and members of the BBG should be prohibited by law from having private business interests and doing private business in countries like Russia or China. It is called: Conflict of Interest. The law governing the BBG must be changed.

The latest incident with the detention at the airport in Moscow and expulsion from Russia of BBG Chair Jeff Shell shows beyond any doubt that U.S. government business and private business cannot be combined. One cannot serve two masters.

Mr. Shell should have been traveling to Russia on his U.S. diplomatic passport and the Agency should have requested a Russian diplomatic visa for him because he was planning to represent the United States at least during part of his trip.

It was a major failure on the part of the BBG staff to allow Mr. Shell to travel to Russia on his regular passport. Had someone on the BBG staff applied for a diplomatic visa for Mr. Shell, the Russian government still could have denied him a diplomatic visa, but he would know then that he cannot travel to Russia. The incident could have been avoided. The State Department and the White House could have protested, but because the BBG bureaucracy failed to do its job, the U.S. and the BBG were made to look weak and incompetent.

We know that Mr. Shell is a man of integrity and someone who has tried to do the best for the BBG and the United States. But the bottom line is this: any individual, no matter how personally incorruptible, who has to look out for his company’s private interests in Russia cannot at the same time be expected to lead the fight against the Russian government on such issues as media censorship and human rights.

Congress must change the law and reform the BBG.

SEE: Russia bars head of U.S. government-funded media agency, By Karen DeYoung and Andrew Roth, The Washington Post, July 14, 2016


Contrary to how The Washington Post presented the comment from BBG member Dr. Leon Aron, BBG members are paid for their work at one of the highest federal pay rates. They are entitled to be paid for all the time they put in on U.S. government business.

Our readers may also be interested in a comment we received from a former VOA journalist David Dyar to one of our earlier posts.

DAVID DYAR: “I hardly think it is embarrassing and humiliating for an American such as Mr. Shell to be detained and denied entry into Russia, especially in circumstances such as this, which the New York Times describes in its article on the incident as “a growing spy and diplomatic confrontation (that) could now be tipping into the world of business.” Perhaps there are experts who could have predicted that Mr Shell would be denied entry, but the tone of this BBG Watch article suggests that US business and government officials should therefore be intimidated by the recent Russian provocations.”

Our response was as follows:

BBG WATCH: We understand, David, what you are trying to say, but unfortunately in the view of all Russia experts we consulted, the bungling of Chairman Shell’s visit to Moscow by the BBG bureaucracy and exposing him to a provocation by the Russian government has sent exactly the opposite message.
The message that the Kremlin wanted and got with the help of BBG officials was that they [and all Americans and their government] are naive, weak, and cannot be of any help to Radio Liberty journalists and other independent media in Russia. While what you said may be logically correct to a Westerner, anybody who knows Russia, with the exception of BBG’s advisors on Russia, will tell you that what the Kremlin bullies despise most is weakness.
We don’t show ourselves to be smart and strong by getting into a situation where a U.S. presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate and therefore representing the United States is detained and expelled from Russia because BBG officials don’t know what they are doing.
As journalists, we should also be concerned about BBG Chairman trying to mix private business in Russia with being in charge of a U.S. organization which should be strongly defending media freedom from attacks by the Russian government mafia which also has to approve his business deals. This represents a major conflict of interest.
Mr. Shell’s travel to Russia on a regular passport and with a regular visa was also extremely foolish since BBG officials and media managers under them had let everyone know in Russia that he was also coming to Moscow on U.S. government business. Under these circumstances, he was definitely required to travel on a diplomatic passport and apply for a diplomatic visa. Had BBG officials made sure he had done this, the embarrassment and humiliation he had to suffer would have been avoided.
As one of America’s top experts on Russia who has just published a new book told us in response to what happened: “Unfortunately, foreign broadcasting is beyond the ability of our people. I sometimes think we should give it up and donate the money to [another worthy cause].”
We still think that the USIM can be reformed, but the U.S. Congress must move quickly.