US Government News Agency Attempted To Stonewall Congressional Corruption Probe, Report Finds

'USAGM provided the Committee with incomplete, inaccurate, and delayed responses to its oversight efforts,' House Foreign Affairs Committee says

Setareh Derakhshesh Sieg ( Commons)
June 12, 2024

The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees American-funded news outlets across the globe, attempted to stonewall a congressional investigation into corruption at the agency and privately pleaded with a lawmaker to end the probe as investigators began to uncover widespread misconduct at the organization's highest levels, according to a report obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), determined that senior USAGM employees spent years trying to shield agency executive Setareh Sieg from discipline over allegations she "used taxpayer funds for personal travel, falsified her educational credentials to obtain high-level employment, and engaged in a pattern of favoritism that materially benefitted some employees at the expense of the public."

The report on the committee's investigation, released Tuesday and reviewed in advance by the Free Beacon, shows that the allegations against Sieg, the onetime director of Voice of America's Persian News Network, "have merit and are supported by substantial evidence." The conclusion was reached even as USAGM officials tried to protect Sieg from scrutiny and pleaded with McCaul's team to drop the years-long probe.

Sieg initially made headlines when she was fired from Voice of America in the waning days of the Trump administration, with her allies at the news agency claiming officials conducted a partisan witch hunt. She was immediately reinstated when President Joe Biden took office, but allegations of corruption continued to dog her. McCaul began his investigation three years ago after receiving testimony from whistleblowers inside the agency.

McCaul's report provides damning and previously unreported evidence that Sieg did in fact abuse her position and waste taxpayer dollars on frivolous travel and programming, including "tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on trips that did little, if anything, to benefit the agency." It also became clear during the probe that Sieg lied about holding a Ph.D. from the elite Sorbonne University in France.

The report also shows that the Trump administration's initial probe into Sieg was not politically motivated and was based on allegations of corruption by career whistleblowers without a political party affiliation.

The committee was able to "conclude with high confidence that Ms. Sieg does not hold a Ph.D., or its equivalent, from the Sorbonne, despite her shifting claims to that effect," the report states.

"Similarly, the Committee can reasonably conclude that Ms. Sieg allowed favored employees to collect excessive overtime pay, in contradiction of agency policy, and authorized an unqualified producer with whom she was friendly to spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on trips that did little, if anything, to benefit the agency or its mission to report the news to underserved and repressed communities," the report goes on.

Additionally, Sieg "faced persistent complaints from subordinates due to her abrasive leadership style, and mishandled a major programming contract, resulting in nearly a million dollars' worth of taxpayer funds being spent on shows that could have been (and previously were) produced in-house—for a fraction of the price, and with far greater effect."

A lawyer for Sieg, Mark Zaid, described McCaul's report as "one-sided" and accused Republicans of waging "an unexplained vendetta" against the USAGM official. He said Sieg has always properly represented her academic credentials and provided the House committee with documentation about them that was "not analyzed or investigated" in the final report.

"While it is difficult to address a 68 page report in a short statement, there are many incomplete, misinterpreted and defamatory conclusions," Zaid said. "Chairman McCaul was well aware I have represented Ms. Sieg for several years yet never once contacted me for explanatory information or to interview my client."

Zaid maintains that USAGM "mishandled this investigation from the beginning" and accused the agency of "denying [Sieg] appropriate due process." He also said that USAGM kept him and his client mostly in the dark about the House committee's investigation, preventing them from adequately addressing all of the allegations contained in the report.

While the report primarily focuses on Sieg's leadership failures and abuse of taxpayer dollars, congressional investigators also uncovered evidence the USAGM's leadership engaged in "a deliberate effort to protect an insider who had personal relationships with, and was politically aligned with, the senior officials who should have been impartially supervising her."

After the Biden administration reinstated Sieg without addressing the credible allegations against her, USAGM repeatedly "failed to adequately justify this decision" or continue investigating whistleblower claims, the report says.

"For more than three years, USAGM provided the Committee with incomplete, inaccurate, and delayed responses to its oversight efforts," according to the report. USAGM's CEO, Amanda Bennett, even "lobbied Congress to relieve the pressure of its oversight," the committee disclosed.

Bennett in 2023 "took the unusual step of bypassing Committee staff by corresponding directly with Chairman McCaul," according to the report. During that time, she "urged the Chairman to 'bring [the investigation] to a conclusion'" and claimed the probe was draining agency resources.

Following publication of the report, Bennett said in a statement she "unequivocally reject[s] the Committee's allegations that the agency’s investigation of an employee’s background was politicized, corrupt or mismanaged in any way." Further, she added, "we refute the damaging mischaracterizations of USAGM employees set forth in the report, and condemn the Committee's callous attempts to malign hardworking civil servants, including the main subject of the investigation."

During the course of the investigation, the House Foreign Affairs Committee provided top USAGM officials with evidence that Sieg lied about her credentials and engaged in wasteful spending. This only resulted in the agency issuing her "the most minor of slaps on the wrist" in the form of an official "letter of reprimand."

"Sieg has, therefore, escaped accountability, aided and abetted by a gullible bureaucracy which seemed at all times to buy her questionable explanations and even go out of its way to assist her," the committee determined.

USAGM would not make Sieg available for interviews with congressional investigators.

To date, the investigation into Sieg and her conduct "is not complete, because neither Human Resources nor USAGM management has indicated whether the only reprimand that has been issued to Ms. Sieg has any real teeth."

Committee sources who spoke to the Free Beacon said that McCaul and other lawmakers are considering legislative remedies to increase transparency as USAGM and prevent it from wasting taxpayer dollars.

Update 2:50 p.m.: This piece has been updated to reflect a statement from a representative of Setareh Sieg, as well as a statement from Amanda Bennett.