House GOP members say VOA stonewalling probe of Persian service official

Seven House Republicans want the U.S. Agency for Global Media to explain why its director rehired a friend at Voice of America who was slated to be dismissed for improper activities.

Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and six other lawmakers complained in a letter to the agency‘s acting director, Kelu Chao, that it is “stonewalling” requests for information about the matter.

“We are writing to request additional information regarding your role in the decision to rehire a Voice of America official previously fired for misuse of taxpayer funds and falsifying credentials,” the lawmakers said in their Oct. 27 letter.

The Washington Times first disclosed in February that Setareh Derakhshesh Sieg returned to work as VOA’s director of Persian-language programming and was then promoted to a senior position at the official U.S. government radio broadcaster.

The House Republicans’ letter asked the agency to provide documents regarding the events leading up to the reinstatement of Ms. Sieg, who was previously identified only as a “VOA official.”

“Every day that goes by is another day USAGM refuses to come clean to the American people about corruption in its senior management,” Mr. McCaul told The Times. “The agency needs to know Congress is not going to back down on this issue. I will continue to push the agency and the Biden administration for transparency and honesty.”

According to VOA officials and documents, Ms. Sieg was slated for dismissal in 2020 after an internal investigation revealed accusations that she falsified her academic credentials and abused government funds. An agency management team appointed by President Trump carried out the investigation. The team was quickly replaced when President Biden took office in January.

The Republican inquiries about Ms. Sieg include accusations of the improper awarding of sole-source contracts, allowing some employees to improperly charge VOA for excessive overtime, waste of travel funds and falsely claiming on employment documents to have earned a doctorate from France’s prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris.

Mark Zaid, a lawyer who represented Ms. Sieg, referred questions about the matter to the Agency for Global Media but said Ms. Sieg was not “reinstated” at VOA because she was never dismissed.

“Additionally, in my opinion, these allegations are emanating from biased employees who are not whistleblowers and who hold an ideological agenda regarding Iran,” Mr. Zaid said.

He said some protected personnel information about the matter had been made public in violation of agency rules and that Congress should be more interested in the leaked information than its misunderstanding of the French educational system.

Laurie Moy, director of public affairs for the agency, said, “The agency is in receipt of and reviewing the letter.”

The House Republicans’ letter said the panel began investigating the matter in March after agency insiders were “raising the alarm” regarding Ms. Sieg‘s reinstatement.

“Based on the whistleblowers’ account and new information that has come to light, we remain concerned about hiring decisions at USAGM, and the leadership under which those decisions were made,” the letter says.

According to the letter, the agency‘s labor and employer relations staff told the committee that the initial probe of Ms. Sieg was incomplete and she was rehired while further investigation was conducted.

Other supporters of Ms. Sieg said she was targeted in a political purge by Michael Pack, the first Senate-confirmed agency executive, who took charge during the Trump administration.

A second probe by the labor and employer relations staff involved the same personnel as the first investigation. The team’s report of its findings was “incomplete, rife with factual omissions and abbreviated explanations that do not hold water when read alongside the longer and more detailed December 2020 notice for proposed removal” of Ms. Sieg, the letter states.

The agency also provided no evidence that Mr. Pack knew Ms. Sieg or was involved in her dismissal proceedings.

The House committee sought additional information about the case but was rebuffed.

Committee staff then contacted the French government and was informed that Ms. Sieg “had not earned a doctorate of any kind” from the Sorbonne, which is investigating the matter.

“The relative ease by which our staff obtained this information calls into question the honesty, competency and investigative integrity at the agency,” the letter states. “Based on the lack of transparency and communications with French officials, we have no choice but to wonder if the agency is stonewalling to cover up what has transpired, shielding relevant individuals from consequences of their actions.”

According to the letter, Ms. Chao‘s involvement in the case is troubling because of her personal relationship with Ms. Sieg. Ethics rules preclude government officials from making personnel decisions regarding friends.

The House Republicans also raised “serious questions” about Ms. Sieg‘s security clearance.

They noted a July 2020 report by the Office of Personnel Management that revealed shortcomings in how the agency‘s processes were used in granting access to secrets.

“The most relevant portion of the report, for our purposes, suggests that the general manager of Persian News Network was not investigated at the appropriate level,” the letter states. “Worse, whatever other investigation that did occur might never have been completed.”

The lawmakers said Congress is looking for answers for what the agency is doing “to address continued accusations of mismanagement, which has now spanned multiple administrations.” Among the documents sought by the members of Congress are all correspondence from the White House to Ms. Chao and Ms. Sieg.

Others who signed the letter include Republican Reps. James Comer of Kentucky, the ranking member of the Oversight and Reform Committee, John R. Curtis of Utah, Scott Perry and Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania, Lee Zeldin of New York and Jeff Duncan of South Carolina.

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