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December 18, 2013

Ex-EPA official who faked CIA status gets 32 months in prison

By Ann E. Marimow and Lenny Bernstein
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The former high-level Environmental Protection Agency official who masqueraded as a CIA adviser was sentenced to 32 months in prison Wednesday, after admitting that his long-running deception had become something of an addiction.

For more than a decade, John Beale skipped out of work for extended periods by telling his bosses that he was on a top-secret assignment for the CIA. Beale explained in court for the first time Wednesday that he was motivated by "a sense of excitement and the rush of getting away with something."

"You get into a habit of doing this just for the sake of doing it," he told U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle.

Beale, who was one of the highest paid federal employees when he retired this year, pleaded guilty in September to stealing more than $900,000 in taxpayer funds by collecting a salary, bonus and other benefits for work he never performed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Smith said Beale ripped off the government in "notorious, historic fashion" and had become a poster child for problems with the federal government. Beale lied about contracting malaria while serving in Vietnam to obtain a parking space that cost the EPA $8,000. He charged the government more than $57,000 for five trips to visit his family in the Los Angeles area.

"His actions are a stain on the work of tens of thousands of honest federal workers," Smith said.

An incredulous Huvelle called Beale's deception "unbelievably egregious" and pressed the air-quality expert about what he had done during his long absences from EPA's Office of Air and Radiation — and with his money.

"That's a lot of time," Huvelle said. "You could have just retired."

Dressed in a gray pin-stripe suit, and leaning on the courtroom lectern, Beale offered that he wasn't golfing or taking expensive vacations. He exercised, worked on his homes in Arlington County, Va. and on Cape Cod, Mass., and pursued a research project he had started years earlier.

"In hindsight, I think, how stupid could a person be?" Beale, 65, said in an unwavering baritone. "Shame has become my constant companion this past year."

Beale joined the EPA in 1989 and was a key player in the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act. Early on, his air-quality expertise led to many legitimate overseas trips and qualified him for annual bonuses.

But Beale said Wednesday that he "abused and betrayed" the trust he earned "by exploiting flaws in the management system" at the agency.

He avoided the office for 102 days between 2000 and 2008, for instance, and then failed to show up for about six months starting in June 2008. Beale continued to collect a paycheck until April, long after his 2011 retirement party on a Potomac River cruise.

In all, Beale was paid for 2 1/2 years of work he did not perform since early 2000 and received about $500,000 in bonuses he did not deserve, according to his plea agreement.

Beale's case has attracted political attention, in part because his scheme went on during a period in which he worked for EPA administrator Gina McCarthy while she led the Air and Radiation office. McCarthy started that job in 2009 and told investigators she began to suspect Beale in March 2012, according to the EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins.

Last week, Elkins' office issued two reports on lax management at the agency. One showed the EPA was warned as early as 2010 that Beale was collecting pay and bonuses not allowed by law but that the agency took no action for years. The other, which detailed some of Beale's lavish travel, led to the revelation that the high-ranking executive who approved those expenses is under investigation for possible administrative misconduct.

That woman, Beale and Robert Brenner — a longtime friend of Beale's who has acknowledged accepting an $8,000 discount on a luxury car arranged by a lobbyist who did business with the EPA — were McCarthy's deputies. McCarthy has been credited with discovering Beale's fraud and forcing him to retire. No charges were brought against Brenner, who also retired.

In a statement Wednesday, Elkins said his office "is actively looking at the EPA's sloppy internal controls and management actions that enabled Mr. Beale's frauds to occur."

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency "continues to take actions that establish additional safeguards to help protect against further fraud and abuse."

Before sentencing Beale, Huvelle expressed concern about the government's request for what she characterized as a relatively stiff sentence, in the mid-range of the 30 to 37 months recommended under guidelines. An elected official such as former representative Jesse Jackson Jr., the judge noted, is serving less time — 30 months — for stealing $750,000 in campaign funds. Beale also has gone a long way in paying the government more than $1.3 million in restitution and a money judgment, she said. He remains eligible to collect his pension.

"I can't imagine how you worked so hard to accomplish so much and then threw it all away," she said of Beale. "He's paying a hefty amount in every which way."