New York (CNN Business)The new chief executive of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) has yet to show up for his job, sources tell CNN, leaving work “piling up” as a top Democratic lawmaker warns of an impending rash of firings at the agency.
Key staffers have been called to a meeting on Wednesday morning.
A source at the agency and another source familiar with the situation said that conservative filmmaker Michael Pack, President Trump’s pick to run the agency, has not been seen at work since his Senate confirmation in early June.
“No one knows” where he is, which is stirring anxiety among staffers, the agency source said.
Trump’s harshly critical comments about one of the agency’s divisions, Voice of America, have heightened concerns that Pack will try to turn VOA into a propaganda machine.
“There has been no announcement” from Pack, the agency source said. “No emailed greetings to the staff. No one has had contact with him. No transition briefings, nor introductory meetings or any contact at all.”
“Two and a half weeks in and it just seems he’s trying to break everything he can without asking any questions,” the other source said.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement late Tuesday night that he learned Pack “intends to force out a number of the agency’s career senior leadership” on Wednesday.
USAGM says its mission is “is to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” It oversees VOA, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Open Technology Fund, and other entities.
CNN has reached out to USAGM for comment.
In his statement, Engel said he feared “that USAGM’s role as an unbiased news organization is in jeopardy” under Pack’s leadership, adding that Pack “needs to understand that USAGM is not the Ministry of Information.”
“Mr. Pack’s targeting of career experts is part of a trend that we have seen from the very first days of the Trump Administration,” the New York Democrat wrote. “Mr. Pack should immediately reverse course and allow the nonpartisan public servants who run USAGM to keep doing their jobs.”
Trump has repeatedly railed against VOA and accused it of disseminating Chinese propaganda, but the news outlet —which produces digital, radio and TV content — is journalistically independent. Created in 1942, the outlet benefits from a “firewall” that prevents any US government official from interfering with its reporting.
Pack is an ally of Bannon, the ultra-conservative former Trump White House chief strategist, which has raised red flags among Democrats.
Both sources who spoke to CNN said there is a meeting Wednesday with senior leadership at the agency.
While “nobody knows what to expect,” one of the people said, there are indications that Pack is looking to clear out federal and career officials from the agency.
This source told CNN that Pack’s team reached out to the head of human resources and asked for a list of federal employees that were still in their probationary period, where there is more discretion for them to be fired. The source said they can think of only one reason the team would request this information — to try to figure out how to eliminate federal employees.
Human Resources has reminded political appointees that employees cannot be fired without cause, but there is concern that they will disregard the legality of it and fire people anyway, they said.
A member of Pack’s transition team was told to go through the trash and recycling to look for evidence of opposition to Pack’s appointment, the source added.
Staffers are clearly on edge about potential changes. On Monday, two top officials at Voice of America — director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara — resigned, citing Pack’s takeover and his right to install new leadership.
No new director has been appointed at VOA yet, so there is a leadership vacuum for the time being.
Once Pack was confirmed by the Senate, he instituted freezes on hiring and spending at USAGM, according to the source familiar with the situation. The freeze on hiring is standard, this source said, but the freeze on spending has a direct impact on operations — and no one knows when it will be lifted.
With the spending restriction in place, the agency is unable to pay for things such as stringer journalists or satellite contracts, this source said, and within a week the situation could be dire.
This source said there had been plans to roll out a suite of internet tools in Hong Kong before further crackdowns by China — crackdowns which have been met by strong condemnation and announcements of retaliatory action by the Trump administration. But now those plans are now on hold and if delayed too long, might not be able to happen.