The White House-appointed board overseeing government-funded broadcasts to 100 countries is a dysfunctional mess beset by “acute internal dissension” revolving around a longtime friend of former President George W. Bush, according to a new inspector general’s report obtained by the Daily News.
The damning investigation skewers the Board of Broadcast Governors, which oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and other broadcast entities that together employ 3,500 people and reach 190 million people worldwide each week at a cost to taxpayers of $750 million a year.
The inspector general says the board is hobbled by chronic absenteeism, vacancies that have gone unfilled, outright conflicts of interest and “a degree of hostility that renders its deliberative process ineffectual.” Though it names no names, the report characterizes board meetings as “dominated by one member whose tactics and personal attacks on colleagues and staff have created an unprofessional and unproductive atmosphere.”
It concurs with accusations that he impedes free board discussion and uses “outside media to support his views and attack colleagues and staff who disagree.”
Several board sources confirmed that the controversial and powerful member is Victor H. Ashe, who roomed with Bush at Yale and served under him as U.S. Ambassador to Poland from 2004-2005. He was previously mayor of Knoxville, Tenn. The inspector general's report is silent on whether the board's problems are impeding its crucial but tricky mission: overseeing broadcasts that are supposed to inform people around the world while also supporting U.S. foreign policy.
Asked why Americans should care if the board is dysfunctional, a former governor said, “This is the organization telling (the American) story worldwide." The nine-member, part-time, bipartisan board is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. It has operated without a chairman since the resignation a year ago of Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time magazine and former chief executive of CNN.
Only six of nine board slots are filled and those include one for outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is represented by Tara Sonenshine, the undersecretary for state for public diplomacy and public affairs.
The inspector general made eight recommendations for change. They include instituting a chief executive officer position, barring board members from also sitting on the separate boards of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and both the Asian and Middle East outlets, and penalizing board members for missing meetings.
Contacted by The News, Ashe defended his record, saying he's pushed for greater transparency and asked "the inconvenient questions for the two-and-a- half years I have served on the board."
He called the report "disappointing" for not identifying "a single area of waste" in the budget or citing what he said is low employee morale and the mistreatment of contract employees.
He said he's the only board member who has attended every meeting since June, 2010 and who has challenged the effectiveness of operations in Moscow (what he calls the "meltdown of the Radio Free Europe office" there) and the wisdom of certain contracts.
Asked for comment, the board said it, "We take their findings seriously and have enacted some of the recommended actions."
"The report highlights the need for structural and other reforms that the BBG has been working toward as part of a long-term strategy to alter the Board’s day-to-day operational role even as it retains its mandate to provide strategic guidance and oversight. These proposed changes involve matters of governance and leadership, such as establishing the position of a Chief Executive Officer to run the agency. Some of the reforms can come about only through legislation, which the BBG intends to propose for congressional consideration this year, and we will look to Congress to support this effort."