House committee sounds alarm on systemic 'failures' of US agency funding media abroad

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, is raising alarms about a U.S. government agency responsible for broadcasting media in foreign countries.

The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) is an independent federal office that oversees entities like Voice of America (VOA), which alone supports 48 different languages and has 354 million viewers across the globe, according to its website.

It has also been the subject of a yearslong investigation by Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans, who have alleged systematic mismanagement throughout the agency and accused it of trying to impede their probe.

In particular, the investigation has focused on Setareh Sieg, a VOA journalist who was suspended and expected to be fired under the Trump administration in early January 2021, only to be restored “with no loss of pay or seniority” the day after President Biden was sworn in, according to documents obtained by the committee. Sieg’s attorney and USAGM have both pushed back on the committee’s findings.

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House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul has been leading a yearslong investigation into the U.S. agency that backs outlets like Voice of America. (Getty Images)

“Sieg’s case is symptomatic of a larger issue. As an agency which routinely hires foreign or foreign-educated individuals, it is troubling that USAGM does not have more robust processes in place to vet employees and detect misrepresented credentials. Sieg’s case calls into question the competence and credibility of USAGM’s entire H.R. apparatus, and the implications of this failure must be addressed,” McCaul told Fox News Digital.

Their probe has largely focused on accusations that Sieg falsified her higher education credentials rather than getting a Ph.D. in political history from a French university. Republicans obtained communications between the University of Paris and the French Embassy in the U.S. that state Sieg got “an establishment degree, not a state doctorate” in October 2021.

In February 2022, a French Embassy official told the committee, “[t]his is as official as can be and is perfectly clear: Mrs[.] [Sieg] DOES NOT hold a PhD…,” according to a timeline provided to Fox News Digital.

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The committee report also detailed whistleblower accounts that say Sieg gave variable treatment to at least one employee and hired that employee’s brother for a senior position.

It also pointed to an earlier report by former VOA Deputy Director Elizabeth Robbins that preceded Sieg’s suspension that accused her of having “mishandled $950,000 of government funds by awarding a sole source contract” to a VOA-favored media company.

Around the same time as she was flagged for suspension, Sieg joined a group of VOA journalists who called for Robbins and her director to resign over accusations they violated the outlet’s journalistic code over coverage of then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to the report. Sieg’s lawyer denies she was part of the letter.

USAGM CEO Kate Bennett pushed back on the committee’s claims. (Getty Images)

The report also detailed efforts to get Republicans to call off their investigation. In July 2023, for example, the report said USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett bypassed staff channels to contact McCaul directly, asking him for a personal meeting and urging him to bring his probe “to a conclusion.”

Bennett argued the “investigation of a single” employee was “draining agency resources and constraining its ability” to conduct its “critical foreign policy mission,” according to the report.

However, the GOP report said her “urging that the investigation of a single employee was a waste of resources misses several points.”

“First, Sieg was not a low-level bureaucrat, but the head of VOA-Persia, a critically important component of the agency, and one key to American soft-power interests in the Middle East. Second, to the extent that Ms. Sieg was able to dupe the State Department background investigators and USAGM’s security and human resources professionals, diagnosing what went wrong is key to preventing further such abuses by others, including potential widespread abuses,” the report said.

“Third, the highly-publicized nature of this case presents an opportunity for deterrence, but also creates a risk of moral hazard: if Sieg is held accountable, those who would also lie and waste government funds may hesitate; if, however, she escapes responsibility, they may be emboldened. And, finally, identifying the USAGM officials who failed to ask the right questions is key to holding them accountable as well.”

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House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul told Fox News Digital that the handling of Setareh Sieg’s case is an example of wider “failures.” (Getty Images)

The report credited the House GOP investigation with forcing USAGM to reopen its investigation into Sieg, but it criticized the agency for only issuing her a “letter of reprimand.”

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Bennett, however, refuted the committee’s claims of impropriety in a statement to Fox News Digital and said “we stand by the findings of our investigation” into Sieg.

“The U.S. Agency for Global Media cannot comment on specific personnel matters. However, we unequivocally reject the Committee’s allegationsthat the agency’s investigation of an employee’s background was politicized, corrupt or mismanaged in any way,” Bennett said. “Further, we refute thedamaging mischaracterizations of USAGM employees set forth in the report, and condemn the Committee’s callous attempts to malign hardworking civil servants, including the main subject of the investigation.”

“USAGM’s mission to connect, inform and engage people around the world in support of freedom and democracy cannot be swayed by political influence. Any notion that our work has been politicized is categorically false,” she said.

Sieg’s lawyer, Mark Zaid, also pushed back on the committee’s findings, telling Fox News Digital, “The Committee’s one-sided report continues an unexplainedvendettathat has spanned two Administrations against SetarehSieg, a dedicatedjournalist who has devoted years of service to the U.S. government. While it is difficult to address a 68 page report in a short statement, there are many incomplete, misinterpreted and defamatory conclusions.”

“Chairman McCaul was well aware I have represented Ms.Siegfor several years yet never once contacted me for explanatory information or to interview my client,” Zaid continued. “I am routinely contacted by both GOP and Dem Members and their staff, including during this Congress, for my federal clients to testify, and I regularly ensure cooperation.”

Zaid also accused USAGM of keeping him in the dark on the agency’s matters relating to Capitol Hill.

Elizabeth Elkind is a politics reporter for Fox News Digital leading coverage of the House of Representatives. Previous digital bylines seen at Daily Mail and CBS News.

Follow on Twitter at @liz_elkind and send tips to [email protected]

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