Disgraced EPA official pleads the Fifth in House investigation

A former federal official, who has pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $900,000 by impersonating a CIA officer, refused to testify before a House committee Tuesday.

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John Beale, who admitted last week to stealing salary, bonuses and other payments from the Environmental Protection Agency for more than a decade while he pretended to work for the CIA, sought protections under the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“Mr. Beale’s betrayal of the public trust for his own personal enrichment is truly shocking in the scope, duration and sheer audacity,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the panel said. “It is amazing.”

Beale’s story, described by Cummings as “playing James Bond,” indeed seemed suited to a Hollywood blockbuster.

While at the EPA, Beale claimed that he was secretly working for the CIA on the side, allowing him to miss days from work, take extravagant trips and stay in posh hotels across the world.

However, his supposedly secret life was relatively well known at the agency.

“His undercover, super-secret status was known by a great deal of people,” committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said. “It was an open secret that he was super clandestine secret.”

The agency’s deputy inspector general, Patrick Sullivan, said that no officials at the agency seemed to doubt Beale’s claims about his work at the CIA.

When his time for retirement from the EPA came, Beale managed to keep his paychecks coming by claiming that his CIA replacement had recently been killed. He asserted that he needed to stay on at the spy agency until a replacement was found, and the EPA needed to pay for it.

“To my understanding, your first replacement was killed by the Taliban,” Issa said. “And we’re very sorry for the loss of that nonexistent secret agent to replace a nonexistent secret agent.”

On Friday, Beale pleaded guilty to having stolen from the EPA since about 2000.

Beale was hired at the agency in 1989 and began pretending he was a CIA employee in 1994, according to a report form the EPA’s inspector general. According to the office’s report, he lied to his wife and close friends as well as coworkers.

He falsified multiple travel expenses while acting as a CIA agent. Beale claimed to be on missions in places like Pakistan when, in fact, he was at his vacation home, the EPA's inspector general report revealed.

Furthermore, he lied about having served in Vietnam and contracting malaria, which let him obtain subsidized parking at EPA offices, and about having worked for a U.S. senator.

Gina McCarthy, the current EPA administrator and Beale’s former boss, was the first to detect the possible fraud and refer it to other officials in the agency.

She did not immediately fire Beale, however, or take harsh action on her own, which some on the panel worried was a troubling sign.

“It’s another example of this administration, of the Obama administration, failing to actively fire someone,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). “If this person couldn’t be fired and she didn’t do it, I think we have no choice but to hear from Administrator McCarthy. She was involved in this.”

Beale faces up to 37 months in prison. In his plea deal, he agreed to pay a restitution of $886,000, give up an additional $507,000 and pay a fine up to $60,000, according to reports.

After Beale sought Fifth Amendment protections Tuesday, he was lead out of the hearing to an adjacent anteroom to watch the hearing.

Leaders of the committee hoped that he would return after sentencing or as part of a larger plea deal to help probe oversight failures that allowed his fraud to go undetected.

“We want to find out how top officials at the EPA, under multiple administrations for more than a decade, never verified that a man who said he’s a secret agent of the CIA, never verified that he was,” Issa said.

“The lack of controls at the EPA almost guarantees that others did not do their job and fell through the cracks.”

Before the committee on Tuesday, the deputy head of the EPA said that his agency has beefed up its oversight as result of the Beale investigation.

In prepared remarks, Bob Perciasepe said that the agency “is fully committed to strengthening accountability for and stewardship of resources entrusted to us by the taxpayers. We look forward to working with the EPA’s inspector general to ensure continuing improvement in that process.”

On Tuesday, Issa introduced a bill that would deny pensions to federal workers who are convicted of embezzling or stealing money from the government.

The hearing on Beale’s crimes was one of the few congressional committee hearings that had not been canceled by a partial government shutdown that took effect Tuesday morning.

Issa said that it was “an appropriate day to have somebody who furloughed himself with pay time and time again” while hundreds of thousands of government workers were being furloughed without pay.

“I urge my colleagues to refrain from using Mr. Beale to make generalizations about government workers. Mr. Beale is an aberration, not a rule," Cummings added. “The vast majority of federal employees dedicate their lives to serving the public. They come to work everyday, they give it everything they’ve got because they realize it’s bigger than them.”

— This story was updated at 1:10 p.m.