VOA Misallocates Funds and Suppresses Negative Stories About Iran. This Lawmaker Wants To Investigate.

Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.) / Getty Images
May 12, 2022

Voice of America (VOA), the taxpayer-funded government media network, is obstructing a congressional investigation into "waste, fraud, and abuse," including partisan advocacy in favor of President Joe Biden and misuse of a visa program to "onboard foreign nationals," according to a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees VOA and other government media outlets, has obstructed several congressional investigations into its misallocation of taxpayer funds and slanted coverage, including suppressing stories about the Iranian regime's mass human rights abuses. A government watchdog has also cited USAGM for failing to properly vet 40 percent of its workforce, which includes those with security clearances and many foreign nationals, including Iranians.

Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.), a Foreign Affairs Committee member, in March called on VOA and USAGM to turn over reams of information that he said would shed a light on the broadcasting giant's abuse of taxpayer funds. The agency has failed to do so, fueling accusations it is trying to hide this information.

Perry is pressing the Foreign Affairs Committee's chairman and ranking member to haul USAGM's leaders before Congress for a hearing on the agency's malfeasance. The lawmaker, who says USAGM "has become a microcosm of what is wrong with the federal government," wants the hearing to take place no later than July 14.

"The last time the House Foreign Affairs Committee held an oversight hearing on USAGM was September, 24, 2020, to satiate the petty vendettas of self-aggrandizing agency officials who considered themselves above such 'antiquated and irrelevant' concepts as Congressional oversight," Perry wrote this week to his colleagues, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. "Instead of using the hearing opportunity to meaningfully address the egregious security lapses at the Agency, this Committee effectively allowed Taxpayer resources to be expended on a glorified group therapy session for ineffective and/or corrupt government personnel."

USAGM, and VOA in particular, have been dogged by accusations that they favor Democrats in their coverage and use government resources to advance this agenda, in violation of their charter. While the Trump administration attempted to root out corruption at USAGM, especially VOA Persia, these efforts stopped when the Biden administration took office. In addition to reporting censorship of stories critical of the Iranian regime, whistleblowers have described being harassed and targeted for attempting to expose corruption at the agency.

USAGM's Persian News Network is at the heart of Perry's congressional probe due to its 2015 efforts to solicit negative comments about then-candidate Donald Trump. In 2020, VOA's Urdu Service published "what was effectively a campaign video on behalf of then-candidate Joe Biden," according to Perry, who maintains these partisan efforts constitute a violation of the organization's government charter.

VOA Persia also has been under a microscope from Republican lawmakers, agency whistleblowers, and activists in the Iranian-American community for its pro-Iran coverage and documented efforts to suppress efforts by agency reformers. Perry is one of several Republican lawmakers leading a charge to force USAGM into publicly accounting for these accusations, which has plagued it for years.

Setareh Derakhshesh Sieg, VOA Persia's former service chief, was accused by the Trump administration of misappropriating nearly $1 million in funds and misrepresenting her academic credentials.  When the former administration attempted to fire Sieg as a result of these accusations, the Office of Special Counsel intervened to protect Sieg and ensure the effort was not politically motivated. Sieg was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing and not fired. Republicans say Sieg is also responsible for turning VOA Persia into a propaganda outlet for the Iranian regime. For example, she has been accused of banning Iranian regime critics from the network and creating an in-house "black list" of voices who should be censored. Under Sieg's tenure, VOA Persia has also suppressed stories on the Iranian regime's human rights abuses, according to Iranian dissidents who track the agency, and published pieces that amplify regime propaganda, particularly about the 2015 nuclear accord.

"There are numerous documented examples of this rogue agency's formal cooperation in waste, fraud, and abuse, and it's long past time its leaders answer for it," Perry told the Free Beacon.

At least 40 percent of USAGM's workforce was "not properly vetted before being hired," according to an assessment from the Office of Personnel Management and disclosed by Perry in his letter to committee leaders. This finding is particularly troubling to congressional oversight officials because VOA employs scores of foreign nationals through a U.S. visa program that is under scrutiny. Additionally, USAGM has issued top-secret security clearances to "dozens of individuals," raising questions about whether those who received clearances were fit to hold them.

USAGM also refuses to provide Congress with a 2021 internal assessment on the agency's operations. That report, which was completed just before Biden took office, outlined operational failures, according to Perry, who disclosed portions of it after USAGM rebuffed his oversight efforts.

Bryan Leib, executive director of Iranian Americans for Liberty, an anti-regime advocacy group that has been critical of VOA's coverage, said the global media outlet "has operated for years without being accountable to the very body that is responsible for their oversight."

A public hearing, Leib said, "is long overdue and shouldn't be a partisan issue."

Update May 13, 1:47 p.m.: This post was updated to include information about the allegations against VOA's Sieg.