The CEO appointed by President Trump to lead the federal agency that oversees the Voice of America and other U.S.-funded international broadcasters has made strict protocols for scrutinizing job candidates a hallmark of his brief tenure there. CEO Michael Pack suspended a slew of senior executives at the U.S. Agency for Global Media and stopped routinely renewing visas for foreign employees over hiring protocols, claiming the executives’ lapses threatened national security.
In June, Pack hired a lawyer with no background in news to investigate his agency’s coverage for potential anti-Trump bias, in a way that appears to violate Voice of America’s legal protections of journalistic independence. That investigative attorney has a potentially problematic record himself: he remains under a court order to stay away from his father and to surrender all firearms due to a complaint that he made detailed death threats against his father.
These details appear in publicly available documents from a court proceeding held just 35 miles up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from USAGM’s headquarters. It raises questions about how rigorously the security-minded CEO had vetted his own newly hired legal counselor. And this is not an ancient episode: the court order was filed in early February. It remains in effect through February 2021.
Maryland Judiciary/Screenshot by NPR
The USAGM investigator’s name is Samuel Dewey, a 37-year-old attorney who has been active in Washington D.C. political circles for nearly a decade. He was hired by Pack in June, according to colleagues speaking on condition they not be named for fear of retaliation. (Pack has forced the firings and ousters of numerous staffers in his short stint at the agency.)
Pack publicly emphasized the importance of security clearances in explaining why he suspended the former executives, writing, “USAGM faces a decade-worth of gross managerial incompetence that imperiled the organization’s viability and the safety of our country.” That period covers the four years the agency was led by John Lansing, currently NPR’s CEO.
In response to NPR’s detailed requests for comment for this story, Pack issued a statement blaming Lansing directly for “gross mismanagement” at USAGM and accused NPR of “trashing not only the desperately-needed reforms that I’m trying to carry out at USAGM on behalf of the American people, but also the hard-working people who serve this agency and the nation.”
Lansing has been critical of Pack’s agenda and has called his successor’s stated concerns over security overblown. Under protocols established years before Lansing joined NPR, Lansing and his corporate aides and top news executives cannot guide coverage that involve the network or its senior officials.
Pack and USAGM did not otherwise address questions posed for this story.
Dewey, a political appointee, has strong conservative credentials. He is a 2009 graduate of Harvard Law School and a former student of U.S. Justice Brett Kavanaugh who wrote to support the latter’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dewey started as an associate at the major law firm Gibson Dunn in California; he subsequently served on the committee staffs of two Republican lawmakers: U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas. In 2018, his last year working in Congress, Dewey was paid $139,000 as senior counsel to the House Financial Services Committee, for which Hensarling served as chairman. He then moved into private practice, of counsel to McDermott Will & Emery in Washington, D.C.
In early February, Dewey’s father, Joel, wrote a petition to the Maryland court seeking protection. He warned that Sam Dewey twice texted his mother to threaten Joel Dewey’s life, writing that he was “seriously contemplating killing” the elder Dewey. (The two parents are divorced.)
Late that month, a judge in Baltimore County entered a protective order against Dewey. The judge ordered that Dewey could not contact his father, or enter his home or office. And Dewey was also ordered to surrender all firearms until late February 2021. According to the petition filed with the court, Sam Dewey threatened to use a specific military pistol and a silencer in killing his father and also threatened his own life.
According to the final court protective order filed by Maryland District Court Judge Leo Ryan Jr., Sam Dewey consented to the edict “without admitting to the allegations… or judicial finding of abuse.”
In a statement, an attorney representing Sam Dewey said paying attention to the protective order would take a “long-standing intrafamily dispute” out of context.
“There was absolutely no admission or finding of misconduct by Mr. Dewey Jr. but to save the family, including his siblings and his mother, from further scrutiny, he accepted the restrictions in the order,” attorney Stuart Simms wrote.
New leader brings upheaval to U.S. broadcasters
In early June, the Voice of America’s then-director, Amanda Bennett, resigned just after Pack was confirmed following a drawn-out process. Pack then fired the other broadcast chiefs. And then he decided to stop approving new and renewed so-called J1 visas for foreign nationals working for VOA and its sister channels in foreign language services. Instead, USAGM said it would review them on a case-by-case basis.
None are known to have been granted, causing more than 100 to determine whether they will have to return to their home countries, some of which are hostile to citizens who have worked for the U.S. government.
Late last month, without citing any examples or evidence, Pack told the Trump-friendly conservative site the Federalist that the VOA is “a great place to put a spy.” The remark helped inspire a letter of protest against Pack’s leadership by a growing group of VOA staffers and retirees. Pack’s line was taken as a direct slap at the professionalism and work of thousands of journalists who work for the agency. It’s considered especially painful because its journalists for years have had to battle the idea that their work was compromised by their relationship to the U.S. government. Hostile foreign regimes have frequently claimed VOA journalists are American spies to discredit them.
Dewey was the tip of the spear for Pack’s efforts to get inside the working of Voice of America’s newsrooms in ways that violate legal protections, according to numerous former colleagues.
As NPR first reported, Dewey had been assigned to review a video segment produced by Voice of America’s Urdu language service about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden – Trump’s primary political foe in November. Four contractors involved had their jobs severed and an editor was placed on leave.
Dewey’s moves to question journalists involved in the story killed the internal and journalistic review initially undertaken by editors at Voice of America, the standard path for scrutinizing a story there. Even before the investigation was under way, the agency’s announcement claimed that the story may have broken laws against electioneering by federal employees. Typically those reviews are conducted by news professionals and subject experts, not headquarters officials.
In his initial emails, Dewey did not identify what role he played at the agency, according to one of the fired contractors, Vardha Khalil. When she pressed him, Dewey said he was an attorney working as a counselor to CEO Michael Pack, Khalil tells NPR.
The segment reflected Biden’s appeal to Muslims at a conference arranged by a non-partisan group seeking greater engagement of Muslim voters, and it drew on footage of figures from a video put out by the group. The story was widely criticized for failing to acknowledge some of Biden’s rhetoric was overstated or to reflect the Trump campaign’s outreach to Muslims. The Urdu language service is largely aimed at people in Pakistan, so few U.S. voters are likely to have seen it.
Khalil argues that criticism was unwarranted because the network has done other stories that reflect more positively on Trump, who did not participate in the event. And she says it drew on the tone of an Associated Press piece about it.
Further, Khalil says she was baffled by Dewey’s involvement in the review and asked to have her own lawyer present if he was going to conduct it. Khalil says he agreed but insisted the meeting take place the next morning at the main USAGM/Voice of America building. She demurred, asking for more time to arrange legal representation. The meeting never took place. She was soon fired and has set up a gofundme page to challenge the agency.
“If there is a flaw, even if there was a procedural problem, … whatever the punishment or whatever I deserve is OK, but where does an attorney belong in this whole procedure?” Khalil asks.
Khalil says Dewey repeatedly asked her what she thought of a story. Another employee interviewed by Dewey for his investigation said he repeatedly asked about her personal political beliefs. Both said they deflected the question. The USAGM did not reply to questions about that incident.
Through an agency spokesman, Dewey said he never asked anyone about “political affiliation.”
“To the contrary, I along with career agency officials made clear that our concerns would be the same regardless of which politicians were featured in the video,” Sam Dewey said in the statement. “Routine questions were asked as to whether individuals thought that the video was appropriate, particularly within the context of the 2020 elections and journalistic standards. Questions were also asked regarding training as to how to handle election-related stories.”
In another incident, USAGM’s human resources department is investigating the tone of a segment on Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, who would become First Lady should the Democrat defeat Trump later this fall. Journalists at the broadcaster say that too is a violation of the legal protections granted to VOA’s newsroom to ensure its coverage is insulated against political pressures.
According to others at Voice of America and at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, Dewey also sought to insert himself into the broadcaster’s planning for election coverage this season. Sean Powers, the suspended chief strategy officer, called Dewey’s efforts to review and shape VOA’s reporting part of the “step-by-step and whole-scale dismantling of the institutions that protect the independence and the integrity of our journalism.”
A spokesman for the USAGM denied that claim.
“The allegations that Mr. Dewey ‘repeatedly pushed to be involved in planning further coverage of the political season,’ ‘has repeatedly pushed to participate in planning for election reporting and overarching news coverage,’ and ‘sought to help steer future campaign coverage’ are categorically false,” the spokesman wrote in an email. “At no time did Mr. Dewey, or any other USAGM Front Office official, seek to be involved in planning election (or any) coverage, or to otherwise ‘steer’ such coverage.”
The spokesman also said it had commenced an investigation of another case involving VOA’s Latin American service in which a video was posted of a senior Trump adviser warning voters in Spanish of the dangers posed by Biden and his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris. The video was pulled down after questions were raised but there had been previously no review or repercussions. The spokesman said the agency’s leadership only learned of the episode from NPR’s reporting.
In the interview in late August, Pack told the Federalist, “There are a lot of journalists who are heroically motivated by a desire to get the truth.”
Nonetheless, Pack defined his mission at the agency this way: “My job really is to drain the swamp, to root out corruption and to deal with these issues of bias, not to tell journalists what to report.”
Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR’s media and technology editor Emily Kopp. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing’s prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.