Sep 1, 2020 - Economy

Scoop: Open Technology Fund asks Inspector General to investigate

Illustration of a hand holding a gavel that is about to slam down on a computer mouse.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Open Technology Fund is requesting that the U.S. Office of the Inspector General investigate its parent, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), for breaching a firewall provision that is supposed to protect government-funded media agencies from political interference.

The big picture: The move is the latest in a very messy fight between the USAGM and one of the organizations it oversees. Earlier on Monday, journalists at another USAGM agency, Voice of America, wrote a letter to their interim CEO alleging that the new head of USAGM was endangering the agency's reporters.

Driving the news: In a letter to USAGM CEO Michael Pack and the Office of the Inspector General obtained by Axios, Open Technology Fund interim CEO Laura Cunningham requests that Pack recuse himself from reviewing the OTF's funding and security matters in order to keep politics out of the process.

Details: The letter alleges that USAGM and Pack have attempted to undermine OTF's integrity, security, and effectiveness in ways that would prevent the group, which was established to help advance internet freedom abroad, from achieving its goals.

The letter details five areas where it says the firewall — established as a part of the 1994 International Broadcasting Act — has been breached.

  1. Attempts to compromise and undermine OTF’s independence by firing the group's CEO, Libby Liu, and the OTF's board. The firing of agency heads has driven a bipartisan outcry on Capitol Hill.
  2. Attempts to compromise and undermine OTF's integrity by making false and misleading claims about OTF's security and its compliance as an organization that receives funding from the USAGM.
  3. Attempts to compromise and undermine OTF's security by requesting sensitive information about its projects, including personal identifiable and confidential information about its project partners who operate in highly sensitive environments, while refusing to accept the information via secure channels, instead of email.
  4. Attempts to compromise and undermine OTF's privacy by requesting information about OTF's contracted partners in a rushed manner, not giving the OTF enough time to comply with international laws about sharing data.
  5. Attempts to compromise and undermine OTF's effectiveness by withholding funds while distracting the group with burdensome information requests.

Sources tell Axios that previous complaints to the Office of the Inspector General from former OTF employees and employees at other USAGM agencies have received responses and follow-up questions.

  • Sources confirm that the Office of the Inspector General has received complaints not only about administrative violations by Pack and USAGM, but also potential criminal activity.
  • Specifically, there have been complaints to the Office of the Inspector General that have alleged violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits partisan political activity by most federal employees.

Between the lines: The letter provides fresh evidence to support charges that the USAGM is trying to dismantle the OTF and other government-funded media agencies.

  • The issue of OTF funding, as Axios has previously noted, is particularly sensitive, since the USAGM has announced plans to create and fund its own Office of Internet Freedom.
  • Sources fear the agency is withholding OTF funds in order to shift them to that new agency — a move which would be illegal if done without congressional approval.
  • There's been bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill for months over USAGM's actions, especially around withholding funds from OTF.

Go deeper: Read the full letter.

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