Michael Pack, the recently confirmed CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, is being sued over firings at the Open Technology Fund, a grantee of the agency whose leadership was among those Pack dismissed soon after the Trump appointee assumed leadership of USAGM earlier this month.
Pack, a conservative filmmaker who has ties to former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, survived a contentious confirmation battle to lead the media agency, which oversees federally funded news outlets like Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe. It also oversees the Open Technology Fund, an organization dedicated to helping people in authoritarian countries circumvent Internet censorship from their governments.
Soon after assuming his position, Pack began shaking up the leadership of the USAGM's entities, ousting the heads of Radio Free Asia, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe and the Middle East Broadcasting Network just days after the director and deputy director of VOA resigned. Open Technology Fund officials were also hit by the spate of dismissals.
Libby Liu, the Open Technology Fund CEO, said on June 13 that she would resign, effective in July, in an effort to "take the heat off of Open Technology Fund," according to the lawsuit. But Pack on June 17 told her that she was fired immediately, and the next day also fired Open Technology Fund President Laura Cunningham. Pack also cleaned house on the boards of the Open Technology Fund and four other organizations under the USAGM's purview and filled them with Trump allies.
The lawsuit, filed by the Open Technology Fund and ousted board members in the D.C. District Court, claims that Pack's actions are politically motivated and put the missions of these ostensibly nonpartisan organizations at risk.
"It is hard to conceive of a more serious breach of the organizations’ legally protected independence than the wholesale decapitation of their leadership by an ideologically-oriented maker of political films, installed by the President for the stated purpose of altering the organizations’ content," it says.
Members of Congress have also expressed their concerns.
"As the lead Republican sponsors of the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act, we are troubled by the recent termination of Laura Cunningham and the OTF Board of Directors and are concerned about the future of the organization," Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said in a statement late last week.
"We have been impressed with the efforts of President Laura Cunningham and her team," the GOP lawmakers said of the now-ousted leader of the organization, "and we look forward to hearing from CEO Pack on how he plans to continue the vital mission of OTF during this time of transition."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., set up a hearing on July 8 for Pack to explain himself.
"The law requires that American international broadcasting be independent from influence by any administration official — including the CEO," Engel said in a statement. "Mr. Pack’s Day One purge of senior officials and appointment of right-wing ideologues and Trump loyalists sends an alarming message. Mr. Pack should explain to the Committee and the American people his vision for the agency, the reason for terminating so many senior staff all at once, and his other initial actions as CEO."
The Open Technology Fund is an independent agency like Radio Free Europe and multiple other such entities that fall within the USAGM's purview and are closely tied to it by statute. But the lawyers behind the suit against Pack claim that the Open Technology Fund has a further degree of independence than those other organizations that prevents Pack from involving himself in personnel decisions there, which was the impetus for the lawsuit.
"Under the International Broadcasting Act, officers and directors of '[Radio Free Europe] Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, or any organization that is established through the consolidation of such entities ... shall serve at the pleasure of and may be named by the' CEO" of USAGM," the lawsuit says. "Open Technology Fund was not one of the entities specifically 'authorized' by the Act."
But despite the criticism from those in Congress, Pack appears to be shaking things up, with high praise from Trump, who said Pack would "do a great job."
"If you heard what's coming out of the Voice of America, it's disgusting," President Trump said on April 15 in reaction to some of VOA's coronavirus coverage. "The things they say are disgusting toward our country. And Michael Pack would get in, he'd do a great job, but he's been waiting now for two years, can't get him approved."
But Pack, in a letter to USAGM staff last week, promised that he would honor the mandates that the agency remain unbiased.
"I am fully committed to honoring VOA’s charter, the missions of the grantees, and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world," he said.