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EPA's 'secret agent' con man pleads guilty -- then pleads the Fifth

A high-ranking federal Environmental Protection Agency official who admitted to cheating the government out of nearly $1 million by pretending to be a secret agent, smugly refused to answer questions from lawmakers Tuesday, invoking the Fifth Amendment – even though he’s already pleaded guilty.

John Beale, who got himself a cushy four-day workweek for years by telling his bosses he had a one-day-per-week gig at the CIA, refused to answer even the most basic questions from Rep. Darryl Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Although Issa said his committee hauled Beale, 64, in not to “ridicule” him, but to ensure that the fraud he committed wasn’t being duplicated by other government employees, Beale calmly refused.

“I will be asserting my Fifth Amendment privilege this morning,” Beale, who also lied to superiors about serving in Vietnam, told a visibly frustrated Issa.

Beale’s trickery, which began more than a decade ago, cost taxpayers an estimated $886,000, much of it in the form of unearned pay over some 13 years. Under his plea agreement, he must pay that money back, as well as an additional $507,000, and serve 30-37 months in prison. His lawyer told the panel that his plea agreement did not require him to cooperate with lawmakers, though Issa said he would seek to make it a condition of acceptance of the plea and sentencing by U.S. District Judge Ellen Segel Huvelle.

Inspector General Arthur Elkins, whose office unraveled Beale’s long-running deception, called it an “egregious and almost unbelievable case.” He testified that in addition to bilking the government for salary, Beale also had a longstanding requirement that he fly first-class due to a dubious back injury. One flight, to London, cost taxpayers $14,000, when a coach ticket would have cost just $1,000, according to Elkins.

Elkins said Beale was able to get away with the fraud for so long because of "an absence of even basic internal controls at the EPA." But Elkins was never able to directly question Beale because inspectors general, who serve as auditors of federal agencies, cannot compel former federal employees to talk. Beale retired just before the probe began.

In subsequent criminal proceedings triggered by the probe, Beale admitted to taking one day a week off from work starting in 2000, and indicated on his EPA electronic calendar he was working at the CIA's Directorate of Operations. He told an EPA manager that he had been assigned to an interagency, special advisory group and continued to take the extra day off until 2008, at which point he took off for about six months, telling managers and employees he was working on the research project or working for "Langley," where the CIA is based.

In 2005, an EPA manager approved a research project that Beale had proposed, despite the fact that it had no internal controls or oversight. From 2005 to 2007, Beale took about five trips to Los Angeles for the project and was reimbursed for $57,000. The statement of offense says that he used the project to have the EPA pay for his personal travel, which included visiting family members in California.

Beale came under suspicion when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy expressed concerns about his expenses. Assistant Inspector General Patrick Sullivan, who led the probe, said he interviewed some 40 people, only one of whom ever suspected Beale’s life as a secret agent was a fraud. Investigators also compared Beale’s cellphone records to his travel expenses and determined that when he claimed to be in Pakistan and other locations on CIA business, he was really at his Massachusetts vacation home.

Sullivan contacted the CIA and determined Beale never worked for the agency, he told the committee. Beale finally came clean when investigators told him they wanted him to meet them at CIA headquarters. Rather than appear at the meeting, Beale admitted his deception.

“He never showed up because he finally told his defense counsel that he never worked for the CIA,” Sullivan said.