“What does it take to get fired from the EPA?” asked House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., at a May hearing.

“What does it take to get fired from the EPA?” asked House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., at a May hearing. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Firing Feds, Private Sector-Style

A cautionary tale about swift terminations.

How and when federal employees get fired is a theme in several current Washington stories, from long patient waiting lists at the Veterans Affairs Department to an Environmental Protection Agency employee’s day-long porn viewing habit.

“What does it take to get fired from the EPA?” asked House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., at a May hearing. The session was one of many at which lawmakers have expressed frustration at bureaucratic obstacles to quick removal of bad actors while praising private sector companies for their more decisive wielding of the ax.

But there’s at least one recent episode at which abruptness backfired in the due-process world of the federal sector. It occurred at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, from which Government Executive was able to tease out some fresh details of the situation.

In September 2012, Steven Korn, then-executive director of Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, implemented a plan to modernize, upgrade and perhaps soften U.S. broadcasting operations beaming into Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  The attorney and veteran of Ted Turner’s broadcast empire informed some 40 employees -- 80 percent of the Russian-language reporting staff -- that they were out.

Korn’s message—“Welcome to the new Radio Liberty!”—had the “distinctive sound of a mockery,” wrote Vladimir Kara-Murza in World Affairs. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl described the employees as being “unceremoniously ejected from the office.”  The Post’s Kathy Lally reported in January 2013 that Lyudmila Telen, editor of the Radio Liberty Web site, “was among those told in September that she would get severance through the end of the year if she resigned immediately. ‘Over the weekend, they let us in the office for an hour to get our things,’ she said, ‘and they sent security guards to watch us.’ ”

But the September drama was hardly the end of it. Critics, including many decades-long Russian-speaking veterans, protested, and BBG’s board members began noting a decline in the Russian service’s audience. In November, Korn gave an unrepentant speech to the remaining staff in Prague following a trip to Moscow during which he spoke contentiously both to Russian opposition leaders and to two of his own fired employees who showed up.

On Nov. 12, Korn’s address, recorded surreptitiously, was posted to an anonymous, often acid-toned employees’ blog called BBGWatch.  “My theme, like the president’s, is forward -- we’re done debating this, we’re done gnashing our teeth about it, we’re done wringing our hands, we’re done with the second guessing, we are going forward,” Korn said.

“The new employees are enthusiastic, they smile -- which is nice to see. They’re creative, they’re working hard and I’m very excited about where we’re going,” he continued. “So, those of you who are not reconciled to it -- too bad. Those of you who are indifferent to it, which you probably more or less should be if you’re not in the Russian service -- good. And those of you who are supportive of it -- that’s even better. But we’re going forward, so you’re either on the train or off the train and I don’t care which. But we’re going forward.”

Back in Washington, BBG board member Victor Ashe, a veteran diplomat and former mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., was appalled.  In an email that Government Executive obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Ashe told fellow board member he found Korn’s talk “stunning. As a manager myself … it shows virtually no empathy for fired persons. He basically says it is my way or the highway. This approach can only incite fear and anger. As an American, I cannot be proud of the way he is handling this. It sends the wrong message to the working men and women who make up RFERL.”

Ashe made similar comments a few days later at a meeting of the BBG’s  Management and Budget Committee. In January, Korn announced his resignation, citing family reasons. Some of the employees he fired were later reinstated.

Korn is now an investor and board member of such corporations as Brown Shoe Company. In May 2013 speech at the Atlanta Press Club, he praised the bravery of the staff of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty but expressed little regret over the circumstances of the firings. “Little did I anticipate the fierceness with which the old guard would oppose any change whatsoever,” Korn said. “I ran into quite a buzzsaw.” (Korn did not respond to Government Executive’s efforts to reach him.) 

Ashe, meanwhile, welcomed Korn’s resignation. “Korn’s departure was necessary for the survival of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,” he told reporters. “He was feared and disliked by most employees.”

Ashe, before leaving the BBG board on Aug. 1, 2013,would prompt his own tensions within BBG, receiving harsh criticism in a January 2013 inspector general’s report for producing a “pervasive atmosphere of hostility, lack of trust, and disrespect.”