Former USAGM CSO Pleads Guilty to Defrauding Government

BBG – USAGM Watch Commentary

Since 2018, BBG-USAGM Watch has investigated the case of Haroon Ullah, one of the key executives at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) who pled guilty last week to defrauding the government, but in the months before the guilty plea the agency’s top bureaucrats refused to answer even the most basic questions from our volunteer reporters in an apparent attempt to hide the scandal from the public. New information has also emerged that Ullah’s boss, USAGM CEO John Lansing, who had brought Ullah to the agency and gave him a top-level position, dismissed early warnings about Ullah from one of his other managers who later resigned in protest. New information has also emerged that senior executives right below Lansing at first dismissed complaints about Ullah from employees who also reported that they were being intimidated and harassed for bringing forward information about violations of travel and other government rules. The agency spokesperson claims that the senior management responded immediately to evidence of irregularities, but several agency employees said that these claims are not true. They paint a picture of a hostile work environment in the agency long known for having the lowest employee morale in the federal government according to annual Office of Personnel Management (OPM) surveys. Former and current employees said that Lansing and his key deputies initially sided with Ullah when complaints were made about him.

As reported in a June 27th Department of Justice/Eastern District of Virginia press release, Ullah pleaded guilty to stealing about $40,000 in U.S. government money during 2018, while employed as a senior official at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).

Ullah according to the release “admitted that he fraudulently obtained thousands of dollars in government funds by submitting falsified hotel invoices, falsified and inflated taxi and Uber receipts, and by billing the government for personal travel and for travel that had already been paid by third parties.”

Additionally he “admitted that he created a falsified letter from a real medical doctor purportedly claiming that Ullah needed to fly in business class at government expense because of a sore knee. By submitting the forged letter from the doctor, Ullah fraudulently obtained costly business class upgrades at government expense, including on lengthy international flights. Ullah admitted to creating many of the false documents on his government-issued laptop computer. As part of the plea, Ullah also admitted that he submitted falsified invoices and repair estimates to an insurance company regarding a claim for repairs to his home in Alexandria.”

In February of 2019, BBG-USAGM Watch reported on the strange disappearance of Ullah from public view after appearing frequently at the side of John Lansing, the Obama-era appointee who has remained CEO of USAGM three years after the election of Donald Trump.

The DOJ press release states only that Ullah “is no longer employed with USAGM”.

The full story is more interesting and raises questions why USAGM CEO John F. Lansing gave Ullah his high-level agency position and made him his right-hand man, as well as his chief spokesperson on programming strategy. Considering his high profile job at the agency, it also seemed odd that Ullah did not identify more fully with USAGM on what appear to be his private social media pages.

Ullah’s illustrious background, documented on his various online accounts, includes a Fulbright award, Harvard University Presidential Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Public Service Fellow, and membership on the Council on Foreign Relations.

At the State Department in 2013, he was identified as a “field researcher” specializing in South Asia and the Middle East. Later, he became a member of the Secretary of State’s policy planning staff.

USAGM is the new name for the former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), after a rebranding of the agency in 2018. Indeed, Ullah was among officials present at an event in September 2018 at the National Press Club where the agency promoted itself to a long list of high-profile guests.

The author of books on the digital counter-disinformation war, Ullah made numerous TV appearances promoting his books, including a 2017 program on C-SPAN.

At one point, just before the agency rebranded, he was serving as both Chief Strategy Officer, and head of the Office of Internet Freedom.

In late 2018, BBG-USAGM Watch received reports from sources that Ullah had been placed on administrative leave. These reports said he had been suspected of violating regulations regarding travel.

Often appearing with USAGM CEO John Lansing, Ullah became one of the most prominent faces for the taxpayer-funded global media agency. His appearances on C-SPAN and other outlets, and at think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, may have helped boost his book sales.

A court document listing charges against Ullah noted that he “billed USAGM for personal trips, either to promote his book, or for week-end trips during which little or no USAGM business was conducted.”

Strangely, Ullah’s Twitter page, Linked In profile, and Wikipedia entries contained no mention of his connection to USAGM.

At Linked In, he continued to identify as being on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff — notable given sensitivities at the agency, especially among its journalists, about being linked to the State Department.

Ullah’s book selling link (https://haroonullah.com/) contained a link to the old BBG agency website rather than to the USAGM site which was in development.

As of June 28th, his profile could still be found (now identified as “former” Chief Strategy Officer) on the new USAGM website but his photo was removed from a group of high profile agency managers (https://www.usagm.gov/who-we-are/management-team/). Ullah’s name was also strangely absent from the agency phone directory.

A profile page for Ullah at Harvard University’s Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where he was identified as Former Research Fellow with The Dubai Initiative could no longer be found as of Friday. Ullah’s last paper on that site was in 2008 — and there was no mention of his roles with USAGM.

Ullah’s WordPress blog remains online, but the last post there was in 2014.

As of June 28th, the date of the DOJ press release, Ullah’s Twitter page remained active, with retweets by him but no actual comments. Senior USAGM officials and others in the agency appear to have stopped linking to him or being seen on his page some time after October 18th of last year.

Questions sent to Ullah via his Linked In page brought no response. His USAGM email address remained active as of this past April when a source told BBG-USAGM Watch that he was being investigated and that the agency had created a cover story to explain his absence.

USAGM’s Office of Public Affairs failed to respond to questions about Ullah’s status posed in a Freedom of Information Act request sent in 2018, part of a series of extensive FOIAs submitted to the agency that are still pending.

The agency’s Office of Public Affairs at one point pledged a response, but then failed to follow through in response to numerous emails sent by BBG-USAGM Watch.

Responding Friday to a question on Ullah’s plea deal, an agency spokesperson said:

“Consistent with best practices and Agency policy, Agency leadership immediately referred this matter to the Office of the Inspector General, once information about irregularities was made known. The Agency’s own internal oversight and audit processes for travel related expenditures alerted Agency officials to potential fraud. Mr. Ullah’s employment was terminated a number of months ago, as a result of the Agency’s own internal investigation. For further information please contact the U.S. Attorney’s office.”

Several former and current agency employees said that some of the senior executives at first rejected their complaints about Ullah’s travel as unfounded. They also said that they themselves—not the senior management—made the initial notification to the Office of Inspector General (OIG). Some of the former and current employees said they were being intimidated by the senior management for raising concerns about Ullah.

As of late Friday, June 28th, the day after Ullah’s plea deal was announced, the USAGM website continued to carry his profile with the word “former” added, including links to two of his articles dealing with Pakistan, and China, which still identify him as CSO of the agency.

As recently as June 27th, the date of the press release by the DOJ and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia announcing his guilty plea, a new promotion video for his book appeared on You Tube. It is not possible to confirm who actually produced and posted the video.

Historically, the agency has never seen so many scandals in such a short time as it has under John Lansing’s since he became USAGM CEO in 2015 and later selected Haroon Ullah as his de facto right-hand man. In addition to scandals within the USAGM bloated senior bureaucracy, where Lansing placed many of his new hires, multiple scandals were also reported at the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) under the watch of other executives also selected for their jobs by Lansing.

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