Jun 24, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: USAID staff call out acting administrator for defending aides with anti-LGBT+ pasts

USAID's logo displayed on a phone screen.
Photo: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

An internal revolt is escalating at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), with groups of employees alleging that recent hires of senior officials with records of anti-LGBT+ and anti-Muslim comments have created a hostile work environment.

Driving the news: The employees have requested a meeting with Acting Administrator John Barsa and set out their concerns in a letter to him emailed Monday and obtained by Axios. Among those concerns is that Barsa's lack of consideration for employees who feel targeted is contributing to a toxic climate at the agency.

Acting USAID spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala told Axios on Wednesday: "AA Barsa received this letter on Monday, June 22. He will meet with the Employee Resource Group representatives and plans to continue the conversation on the issues mentioned."

Catch up quick: John McEntee, director of the Presidential Personnel Office, recently appointed several controversial but Trump-loyal figures across the administration, including at USAID.

  • McEntee pushed through the appointment of Meritt Corrigan to USAID despite previously being blocked from an administration role following anti-gay remarks.
  • Corrigan, who now serves as USAID’s deputy White House liaison, has bashed the "tyrannical LGBT agenda" and argued that American businesses are being oppressed by a "homo-empire," in online posts.
  • USAID’s new religious freedom adviser Mark Lloyd has also shared a post calling Islam a "barbaric cult," per AP.
  • The staff email further recirculated anti-transgender comments from Bethany Kozma, who’s served as USAID’s senior adviser for women's empowerment since 2017.
  • Kozma argued in a 2016 piece for the Daily Signal that transgender people fighting against restrictive bathroom bills were experiencing "gender confusion."

The other side: Barsa released a statement earlier this month defending the picks, saying that "political appointees are appointed at the discretion of the White House to carry out the President’s foreign policy agenda at USAID."

  • "I have full confidence that each political appointee at USAID has and will continue to implement the President’s policies and agenda to the best of his or her ability," the statement said. "USAID is honored to have Bethany Kozma, Merritt Corrigan, and Mark Lloyd serve at the agency."

Between the lines: The controversy has set off concerns among civil servants at USAID.

  • Barsa in recent weeks issued statements in support of Pride Month and urged staff to report instances of discrimination, Politico notes.
  • But the administrator’s defense of controversial hires has called his credibility into question with staff now seeking out a meeting.
  • "The use of these words and concepts creates a hostile work environment, undermines our efforts to advance USAID’s critical mission, and is antithetical to USAID’s core values of respect, empowerment and inclusion," their letter reads.

What to watch: Staff is asking Barsa to reiterate USAID's zero-tolerance discrimination policies in an agency notice, announce that internal policies will be updated to reflect the recent Supreme Court ruling protecting gay and transgender individuals from employment discrimination, and "publicly show support for diversity at USAID and in our programs."

Read the letter via DocumentCloud.

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