Democrat: Whistleblowers say White House trying to oust broadcast board CEO

Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee

(CNN)The top Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee says whistleblowers have come forward to allege a plot to remove the current CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency which controls US-funded media abroad, and push the agency's journalism toward a viewpoint more favorable with the Trump administration.

In a letter sent to the agency, which controls media outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, Rep. Eliot Engel said whistleblowers have come forward to outline an alleged plan to oust current BBG CEO, John Lansing, and replace him with Andre Mendes. Mendes is currently the BBG's Chief Information and Chief Technology Officer, as well as Acting Director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
Before Lansing was appointed as CEO, Mendes briefly served as interim CEO in 2015 after the departure of Andy Lack, who left to become the chairman of NBC News and MSNBC.
According to the whistleblowers, Engel wrote, the Trump administration intends to dismiss Lansing and install Mendes. Mendes, the whistleblowers allege, has been working with BBG senior adviser and former Breitbart contributor Jeffrey Shapiro and the White House's Associated Director of Presidential Personnel, Jennifer Locetta.
    "This action would violate current law and represent what these whistleblowers have described as 'a coup at the BBG,' presumably with the aim of pushing the BBG's journalism toward a viewpoint favorable of the Trump Administration," Engel wrote. "I view these claims as credible and this scenario as outrageous and unacceptable."
    Engel said such an action is legally impossible since if Lansing is removed, the board determines the interim CEO until one can be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
    "They have allegedly prepared a memorandum for the White House outlining this scheme and are pushing for Presidential action -- contrary to law -- to replace Mr. Lansing with Mr. Mendes before the end of the month," Engel wrote. "According to several accounts, Messrs. Mendes and Shapiro have made it clear in recent months their intention to remake the BBG into an agency aimed at promoting the Trump Administration's agenda, which would constitute an egregious violation of the law requiring a 'firewall' between BBG's management and its independent journalists. Such a scheme would represent a shocking abuse of authority and would reveal an effort by this administration to turn the BBG into a propaganda machine."
    But Mendes, who joined the BBG in 2009, said in an interview the letter is designed "to elicit fear and prey on partisan politics." Though he acknowledged he believes the BBG needs new leadership, he denied ever speaking with Locetta or plotting to remove Lansing.
    Mendes did note that he has spoken with members of Congress who have suggested that he could be an interim CEO in the absence of a fully confirmed nominee.
    Locetta said through a White House spokesperson that she has never interacted with Mendes and has no plans to make Mendes an acting director.
    The spokesperson said a yet to be named nominee for CEO is being prepared for nomination to run the BBG but declined to provide further details.
    The next CEO of the BBG will have broader power over the agency because of a provision enacted in the last weeks of the Obama administration that would disband the bipartisan board, which supporters saw as a firewall between the administration and the agency. Michael Pack, a conservative documentarian, has long been expected to be the next nominee but his name has not yet been sent to the Senate for confirmation.
    Engel asked that the board send him a memorandum outlining the planned change in CEO by the end of the week.
    In the interview Mendes said there were a significant number of misrepresentations in Engel's letter, including that he was unhappy at not being made permanent CEO.
    "I have never heard of anyone changing anything from an editorial standpoint to be for or against, below, above or behind for the Trump administration," Mendes said.
    On Tuesday afternoon, Lansing sent a note to staff announcing that Mendes would leave the BBG to join the Department of Commerce at the end of the month, BBG spokesperson Nasserie Carew confirmed.