BBG – USAGM Watch Commentary
Lawyers for a former top strategic advisor at the federal agency overseeing U.S. foreign-directed media and broadcasting, are asking a federal judge to allow him to serve a 60 day sentence, to which he has agreed, over 20 consecutive weekends.
Haroon Ullah is scheduled to be sentenced Friday at Federal Court in Alexandra, VA for theft of government money.
He worked for the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), from 2015 to 2019 and before that for the U.S. Department of State.
Ullah was a key advisor to John Lansing, the former CEO of the agency. Lansing was appointed to his government position during the Obama administration. He resigned earlier this year, and is now heading National Public Radio (NPR).
In a pre-sentencing document, the government said that Ullah’s “fraudulent conduct affected numerous USAGM employees. Not only did it personally hurt to have a senior official betray them, but Ullah’s fraud undermined the credibility of what is, basically, a news-gathering and broadcast organization.”
Justice demands “a meaningful term of incarceration” the government said, noting that “the employees of USAGM are watching the outcome of this case and hope to see meaningful justice done.”
In a Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing submitted to Judge T.S. Ellis, Ullah’s lawyers say he agreed to a sentence of 60 days incarceration, “accepted responsibility, admitted his crime, and has been “completely and fully transparent about his misconduct and never once shied from the significant consequences of his actions.”
“Haroon has done what can be most difficult, he has admitted what he has done to his family, to the government, to this Court and to himself,” said the filing.
Ullah had “fully accepted the consequences of his actions and even when faced with the massive public shaming that has come and with the loss of his career and likely any meaningful professional future.”
The government, in its pre-sentencing filing, said “while it is true the defendant has suffered collateral consequences, such is true of most white collar defendants. Here, the defendant’s history of repeated and calculated acts of deception indicate that he poses a real risk of recidivism.”
“When presented with a tempting situation in the future, the defendant will be well-served if he can draw upon some time in a prison jumpsuit to fully appreciate the need to refrain from cheating and lying for money.”
Ullah is being required to repay $35,957.45 to the government. Crimes he committed, according to public documents in the case, include submitting falsified hotel invoices, taxi receipts, double-billing third party sponsors, billing USAGM for personal trips, “either to promote his book, or for week-end trips during which little to no USAGM business was conducted.”
Ullah also “used his government computer, a Microsoft Surface Pro, to create the false documents. He would obtain logos and other graphics online and use either an invoice generator or Microsoft Excel in order to create fraudulent hotel invoices” including during “supposed official travel to Muscat, Oman and to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.”
In order to obtain business class travel to which he was not entitled, the government also said Ullah “took the extraordinary step of forging letters from a real medical doctor and supplying them to USAGM.”
The government also said Ullah used similar methods to defraud an insurance company, “submitting no less than 12 forged documents to Liberty Mutual Insurance Company involving home repair estimate and false lien release to Liberty Mutual Insurance Company (“Liberty Mutual”) in connection with repairs to his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for tree damage.”
In appealing to Judge Elliot to allow Ullah to serve out a 60 day sentence over consecutive weekends, Ullah’s lawyers cited the fact that he has no prior criminal record.
“[Ullah] presents no risk of committing future crimes,” said his lawyers, adding that “the public fall from grace that he has suffered has already reverberated to adequately deter others from pursuing a similar course of conduct.”
“…the facts of this case and Haroon’s family and life history demonstrate the infinitesimal risk that Haroon will ever reoffend and there is no need for the Court to be concerned about potential future crimes.”
In their filing, Ullah’s attorneys say his conviction “marking him for life as a convicted felon” should be sufficient. “There is no need for more retribution, further deterrence, or incapacitation. Grace is certainly warranted in this case.”
The filing includes a summary of what attorneys call Ullah’s “exceptional” background, a Pakistani born in Canada who his lawyers say became “focused on public service and committed to making a change in the world” and who “eschewed the riches of the private sector for his public policy passion.”
When news of Ullah’s guilty plea emerged earlier this year, he was dropped from the website of Harvard University.
The government’s case included an assertion that Ullah used government funds as part of activities to promote his books, five of which remain for sale on Amazon.
Ullah’s attorneys also pointed to what they called his “exceptional work for the United States and its allies” while he was stationed in Islamabad, Pakistan, calling him “a trusted advisor” who made “a real difference and protecting Americans and advancing America’s interests around the world.”
In arguing that he be allowed to serve a sentence on weekends, his lawyers also pointed to personal tragedies, including loss of a brother, a contentious divorce, and a mother who is ill.
However, none of these are offered “as an excuse or an explanation of Ullah’s misconduct” his lawyers say. “He did what he has pleaded guilty to and has accepted responsibility and will continue to do so,” adding that Ullah had also “hurt the message he cared so deeply about, combating violent extremism.
At USAGM, an agency with an established reputation for mismanagement and poor morale, Ullah rose to occupy important positions, including Chief Strategy Officer and a high-level position on internet freedom.
Through 2018 and into 2019, the agency remained silent about Ullah’s status, failing to respond to media inquiries by BBG – USAGM Watch. His professional profile remained on the agency website until earlier this year when news emerged of his guilty plea.
BBG – USAGM Watch reported in July that John Lansing and the USAGM Agency continued to be followers of Ullah’s Twitter account after he pled guilty to fraud.
“In an affront to taxpayers and his U.S. government agency employees, John F. Lansing (@johnlansing), the embattled CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM, is still listed as a Twitter follower of his former right hand man Haroon Ullah (@haroonullah) who last week pled guilty to federal charges of stealing money from the U.S. government while serving directly under Lansing as his Chief Strategy Officer. Several days after Ullah admitted in court to defrauding American taxpayers, Lansing also failed to take effective action to remove Ullah’s long bio from the USAGM official U.S. government webpage where only the word “former” was added before his former agency title. On some of the other pages on the USAGM website, Ullah is still identified as the agency’s Chief Strategy Officer.
On his departure from USAGM, John Lansing never formally apologized to agency employees regarding Ullah’s criminal activities under his watch. Numerous management, programming and technical scandals played out at the agency in recent years.
BBG/USAGM Watch was told by sources in the agency, who declined to be named fearing reprisals, that Lansing appeared clueless about Ullah’s criminal activity until an employee started to complain to lower level managers working for Lansing.
It’s unclear if any current or former USAGM officials wrote letters in support of leniency for Ullah, among what his lawyers call “multiple letters by those who have lived and worked with Haroon.”
However, many former and current Voice of America journalists are appalled that Haroon Ullah might get only 60 days in federal prison for theft of taxpayers’ money and damaging the reputation of VOA and the agency he defrauded. Commenting on the closed Facebook page of Voice of America Alumni, one former VOA international broadcaster wrote:
“Just 60 days? Seriously? That’s what you might get for unpaid speeding tickets, but surely not for a nine month-long coordinated scheme of deliberate fraud, forgery and theft. Alexandria’s federal court has a rep for being tough. Let’s hope it lives up to it with this case.“