BBG – USAGM Commentary
Lax supervision by former government executive John F. Lansing, who now runs NPR, allowed his former top aide Dr. Haroon Ullah at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which was formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), to commit massive fraud.
Dr. Haroon Ullah, former top strategic advisor hired by John F. Lansing when Lansing was CEO of U.S. Agency for Global Media from 2015 to 2019, is scheduled to be sentenced on November 22 at the Federal Court in Alexandra, VA for theft of government money.
Lansing, who was appointed to his government position during the Obama administration, resigned from the $800 million federal agency in charge of the Voice of America (VOA) and other U.S. government-funded media outreach outlets serving audiences abroad shortly after Haroon Ullah pled guilty to federal felony charges.
Lansing never formally apologized to Voice of America and other USAGM government employees for recruiting Ullah as his top aide and for failing to spot and prevent Ullah’s criminal activities under his watch as a high-ranking but inexperienced federal official. Other management and programming scandals were also reported at the agency under Lansing’s watch.
After Lansing resigned from his executive government position, he became CEO at the National Public Radio (NPR).
While at the federal agency, Lansing was apparently clueless about his top advisor’s criminal activity until an employee started to complain to managers working for Lansing. These complaints were eventually taken seriously, but the employee said that they were at first dismissed by Lansing’s aides.
The U.S. Attorney observed that
“the defendant’s discretionary authority to schedule his own travel, combined with minimal supervision, contributed significantly to his commission of the offense.”
Ullah reported directly to Lansing, who should have supervised closely his extensive international and domestic travels, but Ullah’s government travel vouchers were apparently reviewed not by Lansing but by another manager working for Lansing.
According to an agency source, complaints about Ullah‘s travels expressed by an employee were initially doubted by some of Lansing’s other assistants. However, one of Lansing’s other top aides reportedly warned him that Ullah was not reliable, although the warning was not specifically about financial fraud. Lansing apparently dismissed advice about his top aide.
The U.S. Attorney noted 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. That is another important reason why justice demands a meaningful term of incarceration. The employees of USAGM are watching the outcome of this case and hope to see meaningful justice done.”
Before Ullah’s criminal activities were discovered, he had received high praise for his work from Lansing and from other top agency officials. Ullah’s statements and photos were prominently featured on the agency‘s official website.
Lansing himself received high praise for leadership from former Democratic Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) chairman Jeff Shell, a Hollywood executive who recently resigned from his position at the agency’s Board of Governors. Lansing also received high praise from the current bipartisan board overseeing the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
Ullah is scheduled to be sentenced on November 22.
John F. Lansing is now NPR’s chief executive. He is no longer USAGM’s problem, but USAGM still does not have a permanent executive nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate who could clean up the mess left by John Lansing and Haroon Ullah.
POSITION OF THE UNITED STATES WITH RESPECT TO SENTENCING
“Given the seriousness of this offense, which was sustained over a period of at least nine months and involved substantial deceit, forgery, betrayal of trust, and the creation of multiple fake documents and associated identity theft, a term of incarceration is critical in this case. Because the defendant has agreed to pay restitution in full and has agreed that he should serve time in jail, the United States joins the defendant’s recommendation of a custodial sentence of 60 days; full restitution in the amount of $34,388.63, payable at the time of sentencing”
EXCERPTS FROM COURT DOCUMENTS
”During the period of February 2018 – October 2018, Ullah submitted for reimbursement multiple falsified hotel invoices; falsified taxi receipts; double-billed third party sponsors and USAGM for the same trips; and billed USAGM for personal trips, either to promote his book, or for week-end trips during which little to no USAGM business was conducted.”
”Ullah 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.”
”Examples of some of the defendant’s creative skills in falsifying documents submitted to USAGM are attached hereto as Exhibit A. This exhibit captures his supposed official travel to Muscat, Oman and to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. In reality, the defendant visited his sister. Yet, he concocted detailed invoices from hotels and rental car companies that he submitted for reimbursement to USAGM. Not only did Ullah obtain personal international air travel at government expense, but he lined his pockets with non-existent hotel stays and fake rental car receipts that he submitted to USAGM. In order to obtain business class travel to which he was not entitled, Ullah took the extraordinary step of forging letters from a real medical doctor and supplying them to USAGM. Those letters falsely stated that Ullah required an upgrade to business class due to a sore knee, because he had to ‘lie flat’ on long flights. When interviewed by law enforcement, however, the doctor stated that he did not sign the letters, as was evident by a signature comparison;
he pointed out errors in the letterhead; and made clear that Ullah’s sore knee did not require such an upgrade, and that he would never have made such a recommendation. Exhibit B contains portions of Ullah’s request to USAGM for a reasonable accommodation in the form of business class air travel, along with several falsified letters from the real medical doctor that Ullah submitted to USAGM in 2018. Altogether, he submitted 33 separate falsified documents, not including five bogus business class upgrades based on the forged doctor’s note. Altogether, the defendant intended a loss amount of $49,624.87 against USAGM. Because some of the vouchers the defendant submitted at the end of his tenure at USAGM were ultimately not fully reimbursed, the amount of restitution is $35,957.45, which mirrors the amount of forfeiture sought.“
“The doctor’s identity has been redacted. The doctor informed law enforcement that the logo at the upper right of the letter is not his medical practice. The investigation has shown that Ullah found this logo on the internet and pasted into the document.”
”The defendant used similar methods to defraud an insurance company at the same time that he was defrauding USAGM, submitting no less than 12 forged documents to Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. The defendant submitted a falsified 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. As part of this scheme, Ullah used without lawful authority or permission the identity of a true real estate agent who works in the Eastern District of Virginia, in order to create the false construction estimate and lien release. The defendant also falsified repair invoices that he submitted to Liberty Mutual, in order to minimize the amount he actually paid contractors to renovate and repair the home, and to keep the difference for himself.“
”Ullah also submitted to Liberty Mutual an altered residential lease in order to maximize his insurance claims for living expenses to which he was not entitled. For instance, the defendant forged the leasing manager’s name for the Park at Arlington Ridge Apartments as part of his fraudulent submission to Liberty Mutual Insurance. The rent was reflected at $2,180 plus utilities. In addition to submitting reimbursement for rent based on the fraudulent lease, the defendant submitted for reimbursement for food and gas.”
”In short, in the fraud on Liberty Mutual, the defendant used without authority the identities of two separate, real individuals, for the purpose of creating fraudulent documents. Through the submission of a dozen falsified and forged documents, Ullah defrauded Liberty Mutual of approximately $49,603.78 (on a total claim of $152,511.68), according to our conservative estimate. This amount is not counted as part of the loss under the guidelines, and is provided as relevant information for the Court under 18 U.S.C. § 3661.”
”Excluding the fraudulent business class upgrades, in the space of less than one year, Ullah created 45 separate falsified and forged documents that he used to obtain money from two separate entities: his own employer, USAGM, and his insurance company, Liberty Mutual. Under no circumstance can any of this be chalked up to a mistake or a misunderstanding of travel or insurance regulations. These are fabricated, fraudulent documents that the defendant himself created on a government computer. They involve the misappropriation of the identities of no less than three real individuals.”
History and Characteristics of the Defendant
“Defendant Ullah is a very sophisticated person. He holds a Ph.D. degree and is the author of numerous books deemed worthy of publication by major university presses. He rose high in federal service in a relatively short period of time. He clearly has the full intellectual capacity to understand the consequences of his actions. Yet, over and over again, the defendant used his intellectual gifts to defraud USAGM, painstakingly creating false documents in order to increase his travel reimbursements and to conceal the fact that he was double-billing third parties and the government for the exact same travel. If life is about choices, then Ullah repeatedly chose falsehoods and lies during his time at USAGM, indeed, at least, 38 different times in connection with his travel reimbursements. And he chose to engage in the same pattern of fraud and deceit with his insurance company, Liberty Mutual, on 12 different occasions, causing that company a total estimated loss of nearly $50,000, based on the government’s analysis.”
“It is true that Ullah has served his country well in the past, which is one reason why he was only charged with Theft of Government Property, not Wire Fraud, and not Aggravated Identity Theft. But past service should not be a get-out-of-jail-free card. Past service does not excuse the defendant’s criminal conduct against USAGM and Liberty Mutual. Rather, the defendant’s past service, in such a high-profile capacity, renders this fraud, committed for base pecuniary reasons, even more of a betrayal.“