'We Were All Dumbfounded': Staffers Speak Out Against US Government News Agency's Attempts To Discredit Whistleblowers

US Agency for Global Media shielded top exec from corruption allegations, House Foreign Affairs Committee report found

L: Rep. Michael McCaul (Kent Nishimura/Getty Images) R: Setareh Sieg (Wikimedia Commons)
July 9, 2024

The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees American-funded news outlets across the globe, is working to discredit a recent congressional report alleging widespread corruption and target whistleblowers for raising concerns about the agency's misdeeds, staffers told the Washington Free Beacon.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee determined in June that senior USAGM employees spent years shielding 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." Sieg, the onetime director of Voice of America's Persian News Network, was fired from the agency in the waning days of the Trump administration but reinstated under President Joe Biden.

The report was seen as confirmation of whistleblower claims about malfeasance dating back as far as 2020. Following the report’s release, USAGM quickly dismissed the findings as a partisan witch hunt. Now, the agency is threatening employees who are pushing for disciplinary action against Sieg, according to three staffers.

"We know how a dictatorship like the Islamic Republic of Iran treats journalists or people who speak to the media if they say or report something it doesn’t like," said one employee, who—like the others quoted in this piece—was granted anonymity due to fear of retaliation.

"Unfortunately, when you have voices threatening VOA Persian whistleblowers, it makes talking more difficult."

The employees say that Amanda Bennett, USAGM’s CEO, refuses to address the report’s findings, instead resorting to ad hominem attacks on Republican committee chair Michael McCaul (Texas). Congressional sources briefed on the matter confirmed that USAGM’s leadership will not engage with the committee’s investigators and that whistleblowers they have spoken to expressed similar concerns about the agency's attempts to sweep the report under the rug.

"This well-documented and scathing report released last week was a balm to our wounds, and it greatly warmed our hearts because we finally had some semblance of justice and accountability after witnessing Setareh Sieg's appalling parade of malfeasance, waste, fraud, and abuse over the years," a second USAGM employee told the Free Beacon. "At the same time, we were all dumbfounded by our leadership's reaction to the report. It takes a lot of chutzpah to dismiss the report out of hand instead of judging it on its merits."

The three employees who spoke to the Free Beacon said their concerns are shared by many in the agency, including those from "all walks of life and political persuasions."

Shortly after McCaul released his report, a USAGM spokesman said the agency "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."

The taxpayer-funded broadcasting giant also contested "the damaging mischaracterizations of USAGM employees set forth in the report" and condemned "the Committee's callous attempts to malign hardworking civil servants, including the main subject of the investigation."

Inside the agency, that response was seen as "utterly outrageous and contemptible," an employee said.

During the course of the House committee’s investigation, officials presented USAGM with evidence that Sieg lied about her academic credentials and engaged in wasteful spending. Sieg, the committee reported, "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."

The committee’s early findings resulted in the agency issuing Sieg "the most minor of slaps on the wrist" in the form of an official "letter of reprimand," according to the report.

That letter, insiders said, was not even disclosed within the agency.

"The letter they say they are going to give to Setareh is an acknowledgment that our complaints about her were accurate and had merit," said the first USAGM employee. "Why did they ignore us for so many years and make us suffer? We learned about the letter from the congressional report."

Added the second USAGM insider: "We will not accept anything that smacks of preferential treatment for Sieg. Nor should the committee. Everyone at USAGM—top brass, HR, and Sieg herself—knows that the letter of reprimand she received is a joke. Anyone with a fraction of her misconduct would have been terminated a long time ago."

McCaul's report uncovered additional 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."

"For more than three years," the report states, "USAGM provided the Committee with incomplete, inaccurate, and delayed responses to its oversight efforts."

A third USAGM employee described McCaul’s findings as "unprecedented and necessary for the cause of transparency in an agency that has unfortunately suffered from poor management in the past few years."

"Tens of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars have gone to waste in protecting a manager with a long history of deception, intimidation, and failures," the employee said.

A USAGM spokesman said the agency "has not received any complaints or inquiries regarding any matter outlined in the HFAC report" and touted its "open door communication policy among all employees." The agency's post-report conduct is certain to take center stage on Tuesday, when its top brass will appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee for a hearing on its "management successes and failures."