BBG Watch Commentary

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the State Department, which produced two incomplete and biased reports on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), has come under intense criticism from the Government Accountability Office and non-governmental organizations for unprofessionalism and bias. Media reports suggest that a faulty inspection by the State Department OIG may have been a factor in the 2011 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Libya that took the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and other U.S. personnel.

Ambassador Harold W. Geisel
Harold W. Geisel

Under Ambassador Harold W. Geisel’s leadership, the office was criticized in a report by the Government Accountability Office last year, which faulted some of the OIG’s activities — including inspections conducted by the Middle East Regional Office that were not “consistent with generally accepted government auditing standard.” These findings were reported by The Daily Caller, which wondered whether the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Libya could have been averted or, at least, more thoroughly investigated if President Barack Obama had filled the post of the State Department Inspector General during his first term rather than keep Ambassador Geisel in his caretaker role.

Read more: Nobody in charge at office that inspected Benghazi security, The Daily Caller, Dec. 6, 2012.

The OIG report on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) completely missed signs of serious mismanagement and waste, which eventually led to protests by famous Russian human rights and democratic leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, and triggered the resignation of RFE/RL president Steven Korn. The OIG report on RFE/RL included copied statements from Korn’s own memos praising his own work. The inspectors also missed extravagant housing allowance and representational expenses and business class plane travel by RFE/RL executives.

The more recent OIG report on the Broadcasting Board of Governors was so one-sided against internal critics of the agency and rank-and-file employees that it produced an immediate rebuttal from the BBG employees’ union, American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812. The BBG employees’ union called the OIG report on the BBG a “Hatchet Job.”

Ambassador Geisel’s inspectors chose to report almost exclusively comments by senior IBB executive staffers, who have been ranked the worst managers in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee viewpoint surveys. The inspectors also launched an unprecedented attack on presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed BBG members, including Ambassador Victor Ashe and Governor Michael Meehan, who have been trying to fix weaknesses in the running of the agency and expose and stop waste and mismanagement on the part of the senior International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty staff.

Incredibly, the OIG inspectors of an agency supporting media freedom abroad, even attacked in their report American bloggers trying to bring more accountability and public and Congressional oversight to the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors spokesperson said on behalf of the BBG members that “The BBG appreciates the work that the Office of the Inspector General has put into this report, and we respect the integrity of the OIG team.” “We take their findings seriously and have enacted some of the recommended actions, including devising guidelines for travel. We will work to implement others,” the BBG spokesperson added.

But BBG Governor Ambassador Victor Ashe was more blunt in his assessment of the OIG report. Ashe is a former Mayor of Knoxville (16 years) and U.S. Ambassador to Poland from 2004 to 2009 (5 years).

“It is most disappointing that the OIG report failed to identify a single area of waste at BBG/IBB with a $730 million a year budget. A budget that large has waste. The report failed to discuss the low morale situation at the Voice of America (VOA) and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) verified annually by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) survey, the plight of contract employees who are almost one third of VOA, the endless labor talks at IBB/VOA which have now endured for three years with no conclusion in sight.” Victor Ashe said.

“For the two and a half years I have served on the Board, I have had a perfect attendance record (only one other Governor has attended all meetings in person) and have raised numerous issues on waste, low morale, contractor employees, the $50 million 5 year Gallup contract, excessive travel to international conferences and the meltdown of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) office in Moscow. I have advocated more transparency at all levels. At my urging BBG Board meetings are now on webcam which had never happened before. Waste includes sending 14 staffers to conferences in Delhi at a cost of $75,000 and 9 employees to Seoul for $50,000.”

“These direct questions have proven troubling and irking to staff at the top level. They triggered a negative reaction which the OIG report appers to have adopted,” Ashe added. “I hope a future OIG report provides assistance and comments on current issues confronting the employees such as morale, labor issues, bonuses, consulting contracts and international travel by some senior staff.”

Ashe also commented on the OIG report’s conclusions that he was too harsh on the International Broadcasting Bureau senior executives in demanding information and actions.

“Well, waste at BBG is insulting to the taxpayer as it is at RFERL. Low morale is insulting. Treatment of contract employees is insulting. I do not insult anyone by design. That is not my way. But to paraphrase Harry Truman when asked if he gave his opponents hell, he said “I told the facts and they thought it was hell,” Ashe said.

“I asked the hard and raised inconvenient questions, insisted on following the rules and they thought it was insulting. Why was it necessary to send 14 people to a conference in Delhi? Why a $50 million contract with Gallup over 5 years and not canceled now that DOJ has sued it. Why no flu shots for contract employees? Duty of Board to look under the hood of the vehicle and ask relevant questions. I was and am insulting to waste, misdeeds and inappropriate actions,” Ashe said.

Last year’s report of the Government Accountability Office raised a number of questions regarding independence and professionalism of the State Department’s OIG under Ambassador Geisel:

“Specifically, the appointment of management and Foreign Service officials to head the State OIG in an acting capacity for extended periods of time is not consistent with professional standards for independence. In addition, GAO reported that the use of Foreign Service officers at the ambassador level to lead OIG inspections resulted in, at a minimum, the appearance of independence impairment. GAO also reported that inspections, by design, are conducted under less in-depth requirements and do not provide the same level of assurance as audits. However, the OIG relied on inspections rather than audits to provide oversight coverage, resulting in gaps to the audit oversight of the department. GAO also reported that inspections performed by the OIG’s Office of Information Technology (IT) were not part of an internal quality review process, and that the State OIG and the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) lacked an agreement to coordinate their investigative activities.”

Commenting on the OIG reports on RFE/RL and the BBG, one former BBG official said:

The outrage of rank-and-file Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) employees and outside critics over the sloppy and highly biased reports by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the U.S. Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors under Ambassador Harold Geisel is fully warranted. Had his office done a proper job of inspecting Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the unprecedented public diplomacy crisis in Russia caused by the actions of the outgoing RFE/RL president Steven Korn could have been avoided.

It is simply outrageous and incomprehensible that OIG inspectors took the word of the worst-rated managers in the Federal Government in the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), ignored clear signs of waste fraud and abuse, and instead launched an attack on the authority of presidentially-appointed BBG Governors and vilified those who were trying to expose mismanagement and protect the interests of U.S. taxpayers.

In light of the previously reported problems with his office, including the faulty inspection of the U.S. Embassy in Libya prior to the 2011 terrorist attack that took the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and other Americans, Deputy Inspector General Ambassador Harold Geisel should immediately order new inspections of RFE/RL, BBG, and BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) by a different team of more professional inspectors.”

Non-governmental watchdog organizations have also criticized Ambassador Geisel and his office for sloppy and biased work.

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO), an independent nonprofit that investigates and exposes corruption and other misconduct in order to achieve a more effective, accountable, open and ethical federal government, questioned the independence of the State Department’s Deputy Inspector General Ambassador Geisel:

“POGO’s investigation has also raised questions about Deputy IG Geisel’s personal ties to State’s management. Of particular concern is Geisel’s relationship with State Under Secretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy. Kennedy “is responsible for the people, resources, facilities, technology, consular affairs, and security of the Department of State,” according to his State Department biography. The matters under his purview are the types of issues routinely investigated and audited by any independent and effective IG.”

As reported on the Foreign Affairs blog The Cable, “State Department to review its own Benghazi review,” the State Department Inspector General’s office has drawn up plans to conduct several reviews of the State Department’s handling of embassy security and the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, including a review of the State Department’s own internal review.

A review of the OIG sloppy and incomplete reviews of RFE/RL and the BBG is also necessary.

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