BBG – USAGM Watch Commentary

Haroon Ullah, a former federal government official and counter-terrorism expert who worked with secretaries of State and the U.S. military, was sentenced Friday to 3 months in prison for theft of government funds.

Ullah had pleaded guilty to stealing more than $30,000 while occupying positions at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees U.S. foreign-directed media and broadcasting. At one point in 2018 he was occupying two positions dealing with strategic planning and internet freedom.

Judge T. S. Ellis imposed the sentence in Federal District Court in Alexandria, Virginia. Ullah has 60 days to report to prison. He will serve his sentence in a minimum security facility in the Washington, DC area.

Under sentencing guidelines, Ullah could have received between 10 and 16 months. He will also have to complete 3 years of supervised release. Judge Ellis also ordered 30 hours of community service in the form of speaking to government employees at the SES level or above about the risks of stealing government funds.

The Ullah case was significant not so much for the amount of money stolen – other cases of government employee theft have involved more – but because of the high visibility Ullah managed to achieve as an expert in countering terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, and ISIS.

The case was also closely watched at the State Department, where Ullah had served as an advisor on counter-terrorism, working on the staff of Secretaries John Kerry and Rex Tillerson, as well as with the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs.

Over a period of 9 months, Ullah used official travel for USAGM to commit fraud. Judge Ellis noted that Ullah actually had the intent of stealing as much as $50,000 before his activities were brought to light.

According to court documents, he submitted falsified hotel invoices and taxi receipts, double-billed third party sponsors, and billed the federal agency 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 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.”

The government and Ullah’s attorneys had reached an agreement, put before Judge Ellis, to allow Ullah to serve a 60 day sentence spread over 20 weekends.

Judge Ellis noted that Ullah had not been fully cooperative in disclosing financial information in the early stages of the case, something a probation officer testified to during Friday’s sentencing.

Ullah’s lawyers submitted numerous letters written by family members, friends and former professional colleagues, including his wife and younger brother, in support of leniency.

In one, General John Allen, a former commander of U.S. And NATO forces in Afghanistan referred to a “breach of trust” on Ullah’s part, but said Ullah has a “unique skill set in fighting counter terrorism and protecting this country. . .[that is of] critical importance to our country’s future national security needs.”

Judge Ellis took note of this, but said it and other letters seemed not to adequately recognize the seriousness of the crime, though Ullah’s attorney noted that Allen had also been “appalled” by Ullah’s actions.

Ellis said the court was obligated not only to consider personal history but to “accommodate general deterrence” though the judge said he felt Ullah was sufficiently remorseful and would not repeat his crime.

“Rather than an aberration,” Ellis noted that Ullah had committed his crimes over a period of months, rejecting the government-defense proposal that would have allowed Ullah to serve out his sentence on weekends.

“If you steal this much money there has to be a significant consequence,” Judge Ellis said, adding that the sentence in the case must serve “as a warning to people in the government” about theft of funds.

Ullah was ordered to repay just over $34,000 to the USAGM. Two representatives of the agency received a check from Ullah’s attorney before sentence was pronounced at the courthouse in Alexandria.

Addressing the court, Ullah acknowledged that he broke the law and engaged in “immoral conduct” which he said had placed his family in a difficult situation. He said he had let down work colleagues, and the government, and hopes to spend the rest of his life making amends.

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.
In a pre-sentencing document, the government said 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.”

Ullah’s lawyers said he 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, had argued strongly for prison time for Ullah saying 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,” the government said.

In appealing to Judge Ellis 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.”

Ullah is a Pakistani born in Canada who his lawyers said 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, Harvard University ended its association with him and dropped his profile from its website.

In an email to BBG/USAGM Watch, a spokesperson for the Council on Foreign Relations said that while Ullah had been a “term member” between June 2014 and June 2019, his membership was terminated “due to defaulting in payment of dues” but that the Council had no knowledge at that time of Ullah’s guilty plea to stealing government money.

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.”

His lawyers also pointed to personal tragedies, including loss of a brother, a contentious divorce, and a mother-in-law who is ill.

However, his lawyers said none of these were offered “as an excuse or an explanation of Ullah’s misconduct” adding that Ullah had also “hurt the message he cared so deeply about, combating violent extremism.”

With a budget of about $800 million a year, USAGM has an established reputation for mismanagement and poor morale. Numerous management, programming and technical scandals played out at the agency in recent years.

Ullah occupied important positions, including Chief Strategy Officer and one dealing with internet freedom.

But the agency remained silent about Ullah’s status in 2018 and through 2019, failing to respond to media inquiries by BBG/USAGM Watch.

Ullah’s professional profile remained on the agency website for some time even after news emerged of his guilty plea.

Letters submitted to the court on Ullah’s behalf did not include one from John Lansing, the former USAGM CEO for whom Ullah was a key advisor.

On his departure from the agency, Lansing did not issue any formal apology to employees regarding Ullah’s criminal activities.

Some former and current Voice of America journalists and other U.S. Agency for Global Media employees said they were disappointed by what they see as a very light sentence Ullah received and the lack of any reaction from former USAGM CEO John Lansing who had recruited Ullah or from current USAGM board and officials.

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.“

Judge T. S. Ellis, however, accepted the prosecution’s recommendation for a three month incarceration for Haroon Ullah in a federal prison.