BBG Watch Commentary and “Just Asking” Questions

Most Americans know that the US President and the US Vice President don’t travel together for security reasons, and frankly for practical reasons and reasons of economy as well. It’s enough if one senior executive branch official represents the US government at an event abroad. If he or she can’t and needs the second-in-command to be around as well, then there is something wrong, and US taxpayers’ money is likely being wasted.

The International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard M. Lobo went to Prague, Czech Republic, recently to attend a meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) at the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Mr. Lobo brought with him his right-hand man, IBB Deputy Director Jeffrey Trimble, in addition to a few other senior IBB officials. All of them are employed by the BBG, an agency of the federal government, whose board members can very easily meet and talk to these officials in Washington, DC, where BBG members usually hold their regular board meetings.

The BBG board has nine members, but currently only seven are serving, with two unfilled vacancies; most of their terms have expired, but they continue to serve until they are replaced.The board is bipartisan. Its members are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The IBB Director is also nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The rest of the senior IBB staff are career government employees who rarely leave their jobs and are almost never fired. They run the agency on the day-to-day basis. The BBG manages the Voice of America (VOA) and other US government funded broadcasts and information programs for audiences abroad.

There may be a good reason for BBG members to travel to Prague at least once a year since they are responsible for how Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is managed and also serve on RFE/RL’s board of directors. One could even argue that there was a reason for Director Lobo to be in Prague to learn more about RFE/RL, although he could have gone there during his earlier recent European trip, thus saving money for US taxpayers. If he stayed in Washington, he still could have participated in the BBG meeting in Prague by teleconferencing from the US, as did BBG members Susan McCue and Michael Lynton, as well as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine who represented Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an ex officio BBG member. Mr. Trimble had a 10-year career at RFE/RL, where his positions included Acting President, Counselor to the President for Programs and Policy, Director of Policy and Strategic Planning, and Director of Broadcasting. It’s not like Mr. Trimble doesn’t know RFE/RL or could not have briefed Mr. Lobo in Washington on RFE/RL issues.

So why would US taxpayers pay for both Director Richard Lobo and his Deputy Jeffrey Trimble to be in Prague at the same time? Isn’t this a waste of valuable time and money, especially at the time when dozens of BBG rank-and-file employee are threatened with being laid off? Shouldn’t have Mr. Trimble stayed behind in Washington, DC to attend to important BBG business while his boss was away for a number of days in Europe?

The International Broadcasting Bureau is part of the BBG and is responsible for administrative and technical operations of US international broadcasting.

Why have an IBB Director and an IBB Deputy Director if both of them can be out of the country for several days at the same time and at the same place? — is one of our “Just Asking” questions.

But wait a minute, there is a great deal of more irony. During the meeting in Prague, the BBG board approved a Resolution Regarding Senator Coburn’s Amendment to Limit Spending on Government-Sponsored Conferences and Travel. According to a BBG press release, the resolution calls for “the development of a broader and more transparent policy to control spending on government-sponsored conferences and travel.”

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) proposed a model of reform by scaling back, and making more transparent, spending on government-sponsored conferences by establishing attendance limitations on conferences, capping the amount that can be spent on a single conference, capping Agency travel, and requiring all conference expenses to be published online. One can argue whether the BBG meting in Prague was technically a conference, but Senator Coburn also wants to cap government travel. Certainly, sending two highest-ranking agency officials to the same meeting abroad should be looked at by the board as an opportunity to save US taxpayers money by not allowing it to happen again.

“The BBG is the most worthless organization in the federal government,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R – OK) told The Foreign Policy magazine’s blog The Cable in an 2010 interview. “It’s full of people who know nothing about media or foreign policy. All they are doing is spending money and somebody’s got to look into it.”

Senator Coburn could not have said it better.

But the story gets even better. Director Lobo and his Deputy were not the only top IBB officials who traveled to Prague. So did the the newly-hired Director of Communications and External Affairs Lynne Weil who — we were told — then stayed abroad to take a long vacation. Apparently, there was no need for her to be in Washington to try to improve the BBG’s disastrous reputation on Capitol Hill, not to mention looking after various pieces of BBG-related legislation heading for a rejection by lawmakers because of secretive and poor drafting by senior BBG officials.

Thanks to earlier efforts by BBG’s Republican member Ambassador Victor Ashe, the board’s open meetings can now be viewed online live and on-demand. Ambassador Ashe is also the one who insisted on the BBG adopting the Coburn travel resolution. Because of his push for transparency at the BBG, we are able to report in much greater detail on the travel habits and meeting behavior of top agency officials and we learned much more than we otherwise would.

As we could watch the IBB senior staffers’ participation in the open meeting in Prague, it was obvious at least to us that it was at best minimal and consisted largely of opposing Ambassador Ashe whenever he tried to ask for more transparency. They could have easily offered this kind of bureaucratic resistance at almost no cost to US taxpayers by simply teleconferencing from Washington. The damage of opposing transparency might still occur and be costly, but at least US taxpayers would have been spared travel, hotel and per diem expenses.

In her brief meeting participation moment, Ms. Weil informed Ambassador Ashe that it was the top-level “management” decision not to publish the salary and benefits information, much of which is already available from official sources, when he asked why the board was not informed that one of its directives to put this kind of information online was not carried out. That appears to have been Ms. Weil’s only contribution at the open meeting. It lasted a few seconds during a meeting which itself last almost two and a half hours.

Ms. Weil did not present at the open meeting a full report on her office’s activities because there was not enough time. Neither did Director Lobo or Deputy Director Trimble. But we were told that in her written report, Ms. Weil stated that her office intensified efforts to work with the office of Rep. Mac Thornberry on his provision to ease the legal restrictions on domestic dissemination of materials produced with public diplomacy funding, known as the Smith-Mundt Act. There was apparently nothing in Ms. Weil’s written report to the board — according to our sources — about the firestorm of protests against attempts to modify the Smith-Mundt Act or a statement from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that she plans to oppose the legislation in the Senate.

Director Lobo told Ambassador Ashe that the senior staff’s decision not to publish the salary and benefits information for employees paid with public funds was designed to avoid “embarrassment.” Mr. Lobo’s participation in the meeting was as well minimal and lasted only about a minute. His Deputy Director Mr. Trimble was not even sitting next to him during the open meeting to offer any off-mike advice. As far as we can tell there was absolutely no reason for both of them to be in Prague and away from Washington.

Since there was also no time for Director Lobo to give his report during the open meeting. He submitted a written report, in which — we were told — he focused on the activities of the Morale Working Group (employee morale at the BBG under the leadership of the management team kept by Director Lobo is among the lowest in the entire US federal government). In his written report, he apparently failed to disclose that the BBG’s employee union AFGE Local 1812 withdrew in protest from the Union-Management Forum, from which the Morale Working Group was formed.

How is extensive travel by senior IBB officials related to employee morale?

Many of these senior executives have been proposing year after year to cut dozens and even hundreds of jobs of BBG journalists and broadcasters while preserving and expanding bureaucratic positions and giving themselves hefty high-performance bonuses — some as high as $10,000, which were approved and defended by Director Lobo as being about slightly below average for the US government as a whole. Keep in mind that the agency has for years received the lowest ratings in leadership and management knowledge in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) government-wide employee opinion surveys. Their latest plan, also strongly opposed by Ambassador Ashe, is to merge the grantee broadcasters — Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN — Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV) into a large, centrally-managed administrative unit. They also convinced most BBG members that they need a CEO who would not be nominated by the President and conformed by the Senate. Critics see this more as an attempt to accumulate more bureaucratic power.

What kind of signal does the presence of a large number of some of the lowest OPM survey rated BBG/IBB senior managers gathering in historic and beautiful Prague send to more than two hundred rank-and-file employees in the US whose real broadcasting jobs these officials wanted to eliminate in their FY2013 budget submission to the Congress?

Not a good signal at all, not to mention the spectacle of wasting public funds that could be used for programming to countries like China, Tibet and Iran. Some of these BBG/IBB officials wanted to cut broadcasts to China and Tibet, but their plans were blocked in Congress.

What the Prague meeting will be probably most remembered for is the restrictive resolution, sponsored by BBG Governor Dennis Mulhaupt, to limit disclosure of information about the board’s deliberations and the staff’s advice to board members. Ambassador Ashe opposed the original version of the resolution, which the senior staff did not share with him until shortly before the meeting. He strongly criticized it as limiting the ability of BBG members and employees to share information with members of Congress, to publicly oppose bad policies, to receive public input, and to expose waste, fraud and abuse of public funds.

Ambassador Ashe said that the BBG Deputy General Counsel Paul Kollmer-Dorsey, who also participated in the meeting in Prague, did not respond to his emails with legal questions about the resolution. Mr. Kollmer-Dorsey answered that he had never received Ashe’s emails, otherwise he would have responded.

The Deputy General Counsel was, however, the only IBB official who had a substantial participation in the open meeting, but only because Ambassador Ashe challenged him on a number of legal points related to the proposed nondisclosure resolution. Even after the board voted on an amendment proposed by Ambassador Ashe to include wording to protect the rights of BBG employees under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, the Office of the General Counsel published the text of the resolution without such wording. This was corrected a few days later, but only after BBG Watch pointed out the embarrassing legal omission.

From what we can see permanent senior agency staffers working for Director Lobo like to travel abroad, some like to combine vacations with official travel — which technically is not illegal or even unethical but can be questioned if important agency business is unattended. Some have also responded to a senior board member in a way which we think is highly inappropriate, even bordering on being impolite.

But, in any case, we could not see any good reason for so many of these senior staffers being in Prague while dozens of BBG, IBB, VOA, RFA, RFE/RL, Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV, and Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) — Radio and TV Marti — employees are facing RIFs and other personnel and programming reductions proposed by some of these very same officials. There is certainly no excuse we can think of for the IBB Director and the IBB Deputy Director to travel away from Washington to the same location at the same time, even if they shared a room in a luxury Prague hotel, which we don’t think they did.

If the US President and the US Vice President don’t travel abroad together at US taxpayers’ expense, we don’t think IBB Director and IBB Deputy Director should either.

That’s our answer to the “Just Asking” question.

What’s yours?

PS It seems that getting Congressional approval for the merger of the grantee broadcasters and the CEO position is not so urgent after all, not during the vacation season in any case. Not that it’s a bad thing, because these proposals are deeply flawed and designed to limit Congressional and public oversight. It’s ironic, however, that not only the BBG’s top Congressional liaison official took a long vacation abroad after the Prague meeting, so did, we hear, a BBG member who supports these proposals and could have been lobbying for them on Capitol Hill.

We’re not, in this case, begrudge a BBG member his European vacation, but we do have a legislative suggestion for Sen. Coburn and other lawmakers that could save US taxpayers millions, perhaps even hundred of millions of dollars in government travel each year. Ban government officials from combining official and personal travel and you will discover that suddenly that conference in Europe is not so important after all.