Trump appointee in charge of US media agency sued over firings

Trump appointee in charge of US media agency sued over firings
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A nonprofit organization that is a part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media is suing the agency’s new head over a recent spree of firings, claiming that his actions are “unlawful” and threaten the editorial independence that its member broadcasters enjoy.

The lawsuit was filed on Tuesday in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of the Open Technology Fund, a group tasked with advancing internet freedom internationally. Plaintiffs in the suit also include four former members of advisory boards that oversaw government-funded international broadcasters. 

The move comes just a week after Michael Pack, the new chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, terminated the heads of four news outlets and a technology organization that works within the agency.

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Pack, a conservative filmmaker who was confirmed by the Senate earlier this month, also dismissed the heads of bipartisan governing bodies that oversee those organizations, which include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. 

The lawsuit claims that Pack's actions are unlawful, arguing that he "lacks any legal authority whatsoever to remove officers or directors" from the Open Technology Foundation. It also asserts that Pack holds very limited power when it comes to personnel decisions at international broadcasters, stating that these restrictions are designed to block decisionmaking from being influenced by politics. 

"To ensure the integrity and credibility of this vital work, their independence from political interference is protected by a strict 'firewall' embodied in statutes, regulations, and binding contract provisions," the lawsuit said, arguing later that "Pack’s attempt to remove the organizations’ officers and directors across the board constitutes an impermissible breach of the 'firewall.'"

Pack's action's "constitute the most egregious breach of that firewall in history," the lawsuit added. 

The plaintiffs are asking the court to invalidate Pack's firings and to enjoin him from taking similar action in the future. They're also asking to the court to declare that Pack's freezing of grant funds was unlawful.

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The U.S. Agency for Global Media did not immediately return a request for comment from The Hill. 

Pack's moves to dismiss several high-level officials in his first days as head of the media agency has attracted criticism from Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Critics have voiced concerns that the moves are part of a broader effort to strip the news organizations' editorial independence. 

Top officials at Voice of America, the U.S. Agency for Global Media's flagship international broadcaster, resigned last week in anticipation of Pack's appointment. 

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelOn The Trail: Trump, coronavirus fuel unprecedented voter enthusiasm NY Working Families Party director on the state's primary House postpones testimony from key Pompeo aide about IG firing MORE (D-N.Y.) has called for Pack to testify before Congress about the high-level dismissals. He also criticized him for appointing “right-wing ideologues and Trump loyalists" to fill positions on advisory boards. 

Ben Scott, Michael Kempner, Ryan Crocker and Karen Kornbluh, who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, were removed from their posts on the boards earlier this month. 

“The law requires that American international broadcasting be independent from influence by any administration official—including the CEO,” Engel said in a statement. 

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate Dems request briefing on Russian bounty wire transfers Democratic senator proposes sanctions against Putin over bounties GOP lawmakers voice support for Israeli plan to annex areas in West Bank MORE (D-N.J.) on Tuesday asked the State Department’s acting inspector general to investigate whether Pack's recent firings violated federal regulations, saying they "appear to constitute an attempt to 'interfere with’ and ‘impermissibly influence.'"

Updated at 11:14 a.m.