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Federal Court Halts Trump Appointee’s Attempted ‘Wholesale Purge’ of Government Media Agency

A federal appellate court on Tuesday blocked one of President Donald Trump’s most controversial appointees from firing the officers and directors of a government-funded internet freedom non-profit organization that combats censorship and counters disinformation.

In a brief two-page order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued an injunction preventing recently confirmed CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) Michael Pack from removing the key employees of the Open Technology Fund (OTF), reasoning that he likely does not have the legal authority to make such changes.

Pack, who was confirmed by Senate Republicans last month despite being under an active criminal investigation by the D.C. Attorney General, is a conservative filmmaker and close ally of former presidential advisor Steve Bannon. Upon taking over the agency, he proceeded to fire nearly all of the organization’s top leaders in what became known as the “Wednesday Night Massacre.”  Pack’s nomination had previously been inert for nearly two years until President Trump in April erroneously accused USAGM subsidiary Voice of America (VOA) of disseminating Chinese propaganda.

In response to the wide-scale terminations, several former U.S. ambassadors filed a lawsuit challenging Pack’s “wholesale purge” of the agency, arguing that he did not have authority for such decisions and that the purge constituted a breach of the organizations’ “legally protected independence” from improper political interference.

The Circuit court agreed, ordering the government to reinstate all of OTF’s officers and directors that were in those roles prior to Pack’s sudden terminations.

“[A]ppellants have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits. At this juncture, it appears likely that the district court correctly concluded that  22 U.S.C. § 6209(d) does not grant [Michael Pack] with the authority to remove and replace members of OTF’s board,” a three-judge panel on the circuit court wrote.

“The government has asserted no irreparable harm or injury to the public interest beyond the claimed right to exercise the very powers that are at the heart of this litigation and for which appellants have shown a likelihood of success on appeal.”

Even congressional Republicans were worried about Pack’s efforts to gut the agency and install his own replacements.

In a letter sent to Pack earlier this month, seven Senators — including Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — expressed their “deep concern” over the sudden purge of the agency’s top employees, which many believed to be part of a larger effort to politicize the internationally broadcasted content.

Deepak Gupta, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, praised the ruling Tuesday morning.

“Victory!! Thrilled by this morning’s order from the D.C. Circuit, halting the Trump Administration’s illegal attempted takeover of the Open Technology Fund, an independent nonprofit dedicated to free expression online,” he wrote.

Read the full order below.

DC Circuit Court USAGM Injunction by Law&Crime on Scribd

[image via Steven Ryan_Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.