New scandals rock government's foreign broadcasting service

In one, Tomás Regalado Jr., a reporter for TV Martí, which broadcasts into Cuba, and a cameraman for the network, Rodolfo Hernandez, were suspended amid allegations that they faked a mortar attack on Regalado during a broadcast from Managua, Nicaragua, last year.

New scandals rock government's foreign broadcasting service

In one, Tomás Regalado Jr., a reporter for TV Martí, which broadcasts into Cuba, and a cameraman for the network, Rodolfo Hernandez, were suspended amid allegations that they faked a mortar attack on Regalado during a broadcast from Managua, Nicaragua, last year.

That incident surfaced only days after Haroon Ullah, the former chief strategy officer at the global media agency, which operates Martí and foreign-language networks around the world, pleaded guilty on June 27 in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, to stealing government property.

Ullah, a former deputy to the agency’s chief executive, John Lansing, admitted to fleecing the government of $37,000 between February and October last year by claiming reimbursements for expensive hotels he did not book, double-billing the government for official travel and forging a doctor’s note to allow him to fly business class. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

The new problems are unrelated to each other; in the case of Ullah, the agency said its internal controls flagged the expense fraud. But along with many others over the past two years, the scandals have brought intensified scrutiny and criticism to the agency, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Created during World War II to be an objective, trusted source of information in nations where freedom of the press is under attack, the agency has 3,500 journalists who reach more than 345 million people in 100 countries each week.

The U.S. Agency for Global Media initiated an investigation into the allegedly faked segment at TV Martí “immediately after these concerns about the footage in question were raised,” the agency said in a statement. “As the agency has made clear, we have zero tolerance for failing to honor clear and universally accepted standards of professional journalism. We also owe it to all involved to conduct a thorough and clear investigation to get all of the facts.”

“I take seriously any breach of professional journalistic standards at any USAGM network. I have asked for a thorough and swift investigation,” Lansing said in an emailed statement. “I expect all USAGM networks to adhere to truthfulness, fairness and accountability in their reporting.”

Regalado is the son of Tomás Regalado Sr., the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees Radio and TV Martí. The senior Regalado was hired last year and said he would help raise the outlet’s professional standards after it came to light that Martí had previously aired multiple broadcasts calling the financier and Democratic donor George Soros, a longtime opponent of authoritarianism, “a nonbelieving Jew of flexible morals” and other slurs.

Results of an investigation into those broadcasts, released in May, found that “the video, radio and web content of Radio Televisión Martí falls far short” of the agency’s ethical standards and stated mission and in a misguided way mixes propaganda with the foreign policy objectives of the United States. Several staff members and contractors were dismissed for their roles in the anti-Soros broadcast.

The younger Regalado did not immediately return phone calls or respond to a text message seeking comment. Hernandez declined to comment, citing the investigation. The allegedly faked broadcast from Nicaragua has been removed from Martí’s website.

Rare for the Trump era, the agency is still run by Obama-era executives, including Lansing, a journalist and former president of Scripps Networks, and Amanda Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and editor who leads Voice of America. President Donald Trump has nominated his own choice to lead the agency — Michael Pack, a conservative documentary filmmaker and associate of Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former strategist — but the nomination awaits a vote in the Senate.

The Regalado family is active in Florida politics. The elder Regalado is a former Spanish-language journalist and mayor of Miami. He said in an interview last year that he was recommended for the job by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The younger Regalado worked at Martí before his father took the job there.

In an interview, the senior Regalado said that he had raised questions about the appearance of nepotism before taking the top job at Martí. “Legal counsel said there is no issue because he was there before, and I would not ever be his supervisor,” he said.

Regalado declined to speak about the investigation, saying he had recused himself from it. He added that he planned to continue in his role at Martí.

The disputed report from Nicaragua showed the younger Regalado reporting from a mostly empty street when a small explosion occurred behind him. Regalado’s Facebook page displays an Instagram photo that appears to be from the Martí broadcast, saying it was taken “in the streets of Managua near the university after a mortar landed less than 2 feet away from me, shot by the rebels from the back of a make shift wall.”

Footage aired last week on the Spanish-language media outlet CiberCuba and others shows three young men, two of them with their faces obscured by a balaclava and a bandanna, placing a small explosive into a pipe and lighting its fuse. The camera follows the device as it arcs from the pipe and explodes with a small bang in an area behind Regalado, who then jogs forward. Laughter can be heard. Regalado’s Facebook post and other materials were viewed by The New York Times.

In December, the Agency for Global Media awarded Hernandez, a cameraman with decades of experience, its David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award for “his intrepid determination and enthusiastic reporting from Colombia, Nicaragua” and other places. A videotaped tribute to Hernandez shows him traveling with Regalado, saying, “In Nicaragua, his reporting on the political demonstrations and government violence kept Cubans informed.”

Ullah, an expert in South Asia diplomacy, joined the agency in 2017 from the State Department. He was hired by Lansing, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to lead the agency in 2015.

Under Lansing’s leadership, the agency has introduced new coverage of Russia and Iran, while working to counter a string of ethical scandals.

Voice of America, the flagship of U.S. government efforts to promote its values abroad, was shaken in October when 15 of its journalists were fired or disciplined after an internal investigation found they accepted “brown envelopes,” or bribes, passed to them by a Nigerian official.

Weeks later, Voice of America fired the chief of its Mandarin-language section after a billionaire Chinese exile who is championed by some on the American right and is known for making unsubstantiated charges against Beijing was promised a three-hour live broadcast.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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