Last summer, an appointee of former President Donald Trump was irate because he could not simply fire top executives who had warned him that some of his plans might be illegal.
Michael Pack, who was CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media that oversees Voice of America, in August suspended those top executives. He also immediately ordered up an investigation to determine what wrongdoing the executives might have committed.
Instead of turning to inspectors general or civil servants to investigate, Pack personally signed a no-bid contract to hire a high-profile law firm with strong Republican ties.
The bill — footed by taxpayers — exceeded a million dollars in just the first few months of the contract.
Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit that represents federal whistleblowers accusing Pack and some of his inner circle of breaking U.S. laws and regulations, shared an analysis it conducted of documents related to the contract between Pack and the law firm.
The documents, obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act, are likely to add to Pack's troubles even out of government; his actions have inspired numerous rebukes from federal and Washington D.C. judges and in findings from official government investigators, and he remains the subject of other formal reviews.
The group's analysis of the new documents, shared with NPR, found the law firm McGuireWoods charged more than $320 per hour for 3,200 billable hours from August through October alone. It devoted five partners, six associates, two lawyers "of counsel," two staff attorneys, seven paralegals, three case assistants, 14 other timekeepers, and 11 "outsourced attorneys" to the work.
(According to exchanges between USAGM staffers reviewed by NPR, November and December charges from the law firm exceeded $1.2 million. Those exchanges were not part of the documents released on Thursday.)
The invoices reflect that McGuireWoods' legal team, among other duties, reviewed social media posts, "news articles relating to Michael Pack" and an "[Office of Inspector General] audit on Hillary Clinton's email breach."
It was not immediately apparent what the controversy involving the former Secretary of State had to do with the investigation of the suspended USAGM executives. Clinton by then had already been out of office for more than seven years.
"The engagement constitutes gross mismanagement, gross waste of taxpayer dollars and abuse of authority," David Seide of the Government Accountability Project, wrote in a letter Thursday to Congressional committees with oversight of the committee.
"The 'deliverables' provided by McGuireWoods are — always were — of questionable value," he wrote. "The investigations produced nothing that could justify the kind of discipline Mr. Pack sought to impose on current USAGM employees he did not like — he wanted them fired (they have since been reinstated). Investigations of former employees also yielded nothing."
McGuire Woods, based in Richmond, Va., is known in conservative circles. The lead partner on the USAGM investigation is John D. Adams, a former GOP candidate for attorney general of the Commonwealth of Virginia and a former law clerk of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Before taking the helm of USAGM, Pack had made a sympathetic documentary about Thomas based on dozens of hours of interviews with the reclusive jurist and his wife Ginni.
Adams did not return a call seeking comment. A McGuireWoods spokesperson confirmed it had been retained by USAGM and had provided legal services to the agency.
"McGuireWoods does not discuss its representation of its clients," he said.
The nonprofit group's review found the McGuireWoods team spent nearly 2,000 hours in a massive review of documents and emails, 400 hours on fact investigation, and nearly 700 hours on what was labeled as "analysis/strategy." The records also show the legal team conducted voluminous legal research on federal ethics regulations and U.S. statutes. Such tasks for federal departments are typically, though not exclusively, undertaken by government attorneys, inspectors general, and human resources employees.
USAGM did not have any comment on the documents that have been publicly released. The new acting CEO Kelu Chao, a former senior Voice of America official, was appointed by President Biden on the day of his inauguration. She has brought back many of the executives that Pack suspended and investigated, including its chief financial officer, its general counsel and its chief strategy officer.
Related documents are to be released soon, according to the agency. Pack had made sweeping allegations, echoing Trump, about a "deep state" within the agency seeking to thwart his priorities. He also accused top executives of such laxity about security concerns that he said USAGM would be ripe for foreign spies and alleged that the newsrooms it funded abroad were rife with anti-Trump sentiment.
USAGM is the parent agency of not only Voice of America, but also Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other networks that cover news for people living in nations overseas. They reach an estimated combined audience of more than 360 million people each week, providing news for countries where a free press is either not financially viable or under assault from repressive regimes. They also model American pluralistic values — a soft sell for democracy — by reflecting the contentious nature of American political and social debate.
Pack's criticisms span a period that includes the tenure of former USAGM CEO John Lansing, who is now CEO at NPR. (Under NPR's protocols, top newsroom leaders cannot review any of the network's coverage that touches on USAGM because of his prior position there.)
Pack did not reply to a detailed request for comment.
Seide from the nonprofit noted that political appointees are not supposed to oversee federal contracts. Yet the documents show the law firm's point of contact at the agency was Sam Dewey, a political appointee who was a top adviser and attorney for Pack, who had separately investigated several Voice of America journalists for perceived anti-Trump bias.
"CEO Pack's decision to engage McGuireWoods was lawful as were all subsequent matters of which I am aware related to McGuireWoods' work for USAGM," Dewey tells NPR. "I cannot comment further as USAGM has not authorized me to speak on this issue." Dewey has left the agency.
On January 19th, McGuire Woods wrote to USAGM's Pack to inform the agency that the firm's investigation was complete. By 2 p.m. the next day, Pack was no longer chief executive. He had resigned, at Biden's direction, on the new president's inauguration day.
Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR 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.