Seven foreign journalists from the US Global Media Agency, who the Trump administration dismissed, have sued the agency for breach of contract and illegal dismissal.
Journalists claim in their complaints that their careers and livelihoods have been dismissed and severely hurt and that they are looking for wages. Most also argue that USAGM has fraudulently returned dismissal documents, indicating that authorities follow appropriate procedures to facilitate their departure. Three of the seven who complained, Valdya Baraputri of Indonesia, Paula Alves Silva and Julia Riera of Spain, had to leave the country.
According to complaints, Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker appointed CEO of government media group USAGM in June 2020, distrusts foreign journalists working on various broadcast programs under USAGM. Visas that have stated and refused to allow more than 30 people, will cause them to lose their jobs. In an August 2020 federalist interview quoted in the complaint, Puck said, “journalist is a good cover for spies,” and J-1 visa holders could try to “break-in” USAGM.
Another journalist who filed the proceedings was Carolina Vallardares Pérez, a former Middle Eastern war correspondent who previously worked for the BBC. She earned a $ 4,000 bonus for her work as a television journalist, from Voice of America in Spanish. After the proceedings, she was dismissed shortly after the proceedings, after USAGM did not sponsor a visa renewal in August 2020.
“Plaintiff has since disappeared from the news radar, which has had devastating consequences,” her complaint says, noting that she’s only made a few thousand dollars in freelance jobs since. “With no show or time on-air, it has been extremely difficult to find a position as a news anchor. Over time, the audience forgets about prior on-air presence. Plaintiff has found it nearly impossible to get her career back on track.”
Valladares Perez’s lawsuit, which asks for more than $100,000 in monetary damages, says that the termination “devastated” her career and led to “significant financial, personal and professional harm.”
The U.S. government has not filed a formal response to the complaints and recently asked the court for an extension. In a statement, USAGM spokesperson Laurie Moy said: “USAGM leadership has been working since January to build back the agency following actions taken by the previous CEO job role. Acting CEO [Kelu] Chao and her team are fully committed to seeing this work through. We have achieved a great deal and continue to work to the right any outstanding wrongs.” Moy declined to comment on the specific claims in the lawsuits but said they took the matter “quite seriously.” Pack did not respond to a request for comment.
Some of the journalists who sued USAGM have been offered their jobs returned, but others not because of background screening protocols and other requirements that have not been reversed during the new administration. They are all seeking to recover back payments and related damages, according to one of their attorneys.
The lawsuits, which haven’t been publicly reported, also say that the fired journalists couldn’t defend themselves against vague accusations that they were disloyal to the United States.
“All of this occurred without USAGM ever providing Plaintiff with formal notification of, or facts supporting, any claim or allegation that Plaintiff’s performance had been inadequate, that Plaintiff was untrustworthy or disloyal, or that Plaintiff was a potential spy, and without ever providing Plaintiff with a hearing in which [she] could rebut any such allegation,” Valladares Perez’s complaint alleges.
The complaints, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, also allege that the journalists didn’t receive the required 15 days written notice of termination specified in their contracts and that their contracting officer backdated their termination notice in a “deceitful” way.
While USAGM told most of them at the time that the firings were in “the best interests of the government,” the lawsuits say that they “constituted direct, improper interference by USAGM officials in VOA editorial and journalistic personnel decision-making that was not reasonably necessary, breached Plaintiff’s contract, and violated applicable laws and regulations, including the statutory firewall.”
Despite the agency’s advocates hoping Biden would make the government broadcast a priority, the White House has yet to select someone to lead it, a position confirmed by the Senate. According to four people familiar with the matter, Amanda Bennett, the former VOA director who resigned shortly after Pack’s arrival, is being viewed as the organization’s leader. One of them said her nomination could come in the next few weeks. Bennett did not respond to a request for comment.