During his brief but controversial tenure as head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the parent agency of Voice of America, Michael Pack’s office systematically undermined and stonewalled the agency’s ethics program. According to a report obtained by CREW, Pack’s office refused to provide ethics officials with information needed to resolve conflicts of interest and ensure compliance with ethics laws and regulations. In addition, only 22 of the at least 34 USAGM officials who were required to file public financial disclosure reports did so in 2020. This obstruction appears to have gone unchallenged during Pack’s tenure and exposes a key vulnerability in the federal ethics program.
These revelations follow Pack’s attacks on the agency responsible for using media to promote freedom and democracy abroad. Soon after his confirmation, Pack conducted a “purge” of top executives, firing multiple top agency officials and suspending several others in August 2020. Pack also hired two law firms to investigate the sidelined executives on no-bid contracts that ultimately cost taxpayers at least $4 million, in a potential violation of federal contracting rules. These executives were later reinstated, with no evidence of wrongdoing found.
Pack also faced numerous whistleblower complaints during his brief tenure, over issues including politicization of the agency, the firings and suspensions, and the rescinding of rules protecting Voice of America journalists from political interference. A judge imposed an injunction in November 2020 that prevented Pack from making personnel decisions at the agency and conducting investigations into journalists or editorial content.
The report obtained by CREW shows that the misconduct extended into USAGM’s ethics program. In USAGM’s agency ethics program questionnaire covering 2020, agency ethics officials revealed that Pack’s office prohibited the human resources office from providing ethics officials with sufficient information about the names and status of non-career hires to his office, claiming those simple facts were “confidential personnel information.” This had a cascading effect to largely prevent the ethics office from doing its job. Without knowing even the names of some of the non-career hires, ethics officials could not enforce the requirement that every appointee sign and follow the Trump administration ethics pledge. The pledge imposed restrictions on appointees related to their former clients, employers and lobbying activity until former President Trump rescinded it upon leaving office. In response to the questionnaire’s prompts about compliance with the ethics pledge, USAGM ethics officials wrote that “[t]he Ethics Office was not able to administer the Pledge requirement. We have no information about who did or did not sign the pledge and have no way to obtain such information or complete this section of the survey.”
Ethics officials also were not able to provide required ethics training to an unknown number of non-career officials or ensure that those required to do so submit financial disclosure reports in order to identify and resolve conflicts of interest. Of the officials the ethics office was able to identify as filers required to submit public financial disclosure reports in 2020, only 22 of 34 did. According to the report, however, USAGM ethics officials did not refer the filers who failed to submit financial disclosure reports to the Attorney General for possible prosecution.
Pack’s office also intervened to prevent the agency from releasing financial disclosure reports to the public that are required by law to be publicly available upon request. According to the report, USAGM received one request for public financial disclosure reports in 2020 but never responded to it “due to a lack of sign-off on release by CEO Pack’s Office,” despite Pack’s office not having the authority to block the release. The request at issue was sent by CREW. As of this writing, USAGM still has not provided us with the requested records.
Pack’s office’s obstruction of USAGM’s ethics program reveals a key vulnerability in the federal ethics program. Agency ethics officials were apparently left with little recourse when Pack’s office refused to cooperate with them. A related problem appears to have extended to the White House, National Security Council and the Council of Economic Advisors. Though the Ethics in Government Act requires agencies to complete annual agency ethics program questionnaires, the White House, NSC and CEA never submitted their questionnaires for 2020. The Office of Government Ethics described the issue in its summary report of agency ethics questionnaires, writing that because the questionnaires were due on February 1, 2021, just a couple weeks after the administration and ethics staff changed over, it was not able to obtain responses from these agencies. Despite the change in administration in 2017, the Obama administration still completed the questionnaires covering 2016 for the White House, NSC and CEA.
These examples from USAGM, the White House, NSC and CEA highlight the damage that can be done to the federal ethics program by agencies who refuse to carry out or obstruct their ethics responsibilities. Congress should consider reforms to strengthen ethics enforcement, including vesting OGE with enforcement authority, allowing OGE to proactively communicate with Congress about issues and violations, and mandating annual ethics training for all political appointees. The ethics program must adapt so it can proactively address these issues while they are happening rather than revealing them after the fact, when it may be too late to undo the damage.