FILE - Voice of America offices in Washington, D.C.
FILE - Voice of America offices in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON - A former State Department official and senior employee of the U.S. Agency for Global Media pleaded guilty on Thursday to stealing nearly $40,000 in government funds last year while in the employ of the federal agency.

Haroon K. Ullah, who served as chief strategy officer for USAGM from late 2017 to early this year, admitted in U.S. court in Alexandria, Virginia, that he received thousands of dollars in reimbursements from the federal agency by submitting falsified hotel, taxi and Uber invoices, and by billing the government for personal trips to promote his book and weekend trips, during which he performed no USAGM-related work.

Ullah, 41, also admitted in court documents that he falsified a letter from a real doctor claiming that Ullah needed to fly in business class because of a sore knee that required him to "lie flat" on long flights. The false letter enabled Ullah to get expensive business class upgrades on several international flights at government expense. One such upgrade for a flight to Cologne, Germany, cost the agency more than $1,600.

According to a court filing signed by one of Ullah's attorneys, Ullah used a laptop issued by the agency and an invoice generator to create many of the fake documents.

USAGM, formerly known as BBG, is an independent U.S. government agency that oversees Voice of America and four other broadcasting entities.

The author of several books on political Islam and extremism, the Ph.D.-holding Ullah joined the agency in October 2017 after serving on former Secretary of State John Kerry's policy planning staff. As chief strategy officer for USAGM, Ullah led the "agency's policy engagement within the broader U.S. government as well as with key stakeholders outside the federal government," according to an online biography cited in court filings.

According to court documents, he committed the theft from February to October 2018, when he was placed on administrative leave. The agency fired him in early April. A source familiar with the case not related to the agency said the inquiry into Ullah's alleged misdeeds was instigated by an anonymous complaint filed last year with the agency.

Upcoming sentencing

In a statement, USAGM said that once “information about irregularities” came to light, “agency leadership referred this matter to the Office of the Inspector General."

“The agency’s own internal oversight and audit processes for travel-related expenditures alerted Agency officials to potential fraud,” the statement continued. “Mr. Ullah’s employment was terminated a number of months ago, as a result of the Agency’s own investigation.”

Mark Schamel, a lawyer for Ullah, called him a "dedicated patriot" who will "continue to find ways to contribute to national security."

"Dr. Ullah has done so much for the United States through his myriad contributions in the fight against terrorism," Schamel said in a statement to VOA. "This case will not define him and all that he has done in saving American lives."

Ullah's sentencing is scheduled for October. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison for theft of government money. Actual sentences for federal crimes tend to be less than the maximum.