U.S. Agency for Global Media sign
FILE - The U.S. Agency for Global Media sign at Voice of America, in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON - A former State Department official and senior employee of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) was sentenced Friday to three months in prison for theft of government property.

Haroon Ullah, who from October 2017 to April 2019 served as chief strategy officer for the agency that oversees Voice of America, pleaded guilty in June of swindling tens of thousands of dollars by submitting falsified invoices and by billing the government for personal trips to promote his book.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Ullah faced 10 to 16 months in prison for theft of government property.

Prior to Ullah's sentencing, prosecutors and defense lawyers had agreed to a 60-day sentence to be served over 30 weekends as long as Ullah paid more than $34,000 in restitution, roughly the amount he purloined during a nine-month stealing spree.

Ullah made the payment Friday. But federal Judge T.S. Ellis said a higher sentence was warranted as a "general deterrence" to other government employees who might engage in similar conduct.

'There has to be a consequence'

"I think if you steal this much money from the government, there has to be a consequence," Ellis told Ullah in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. "The sentence must stand as a warning to others not to engage in this conduct."

Ullah will likely begin his prison term in early January after the Bureau of Prisons assigns him to a facility, Mark Schamel, one of Ullah's attorneys, said. The prison term will be followed by a three-year supervised release and 30 days of community service, during which he'll be required to speak to senior government employees to warn them that falsifying expense documentation is a crime.

USAGM, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is an independent U.S. government agency that oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

In a statement, USAGM said the sentence “sends a strong message that there is zero tolerance for fraud or malfeasance.”

“USAGM has taken this entire matter very seriously, and is committed to transparency of all agency processes and systems,” the statement said.
 
It added that the agency’s internal oversight and audit systems detected and stopped Ullah’s fraudulent activities, reducing financial loss to the government. According to prosecutors, Ullah had intended to steal nearly $50,000 but was unable to fully carry out his scheme after he was caught.
 
“Once information about irregularities was made known, the Agency immediately referred this matter to the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a move that is consistent with best practices and USAGM policy,” the statement said.

Former Kerry aide

Before joining USAGM as a high-level executive in late 2017, Ullah, who holds a doctorate and is a published author and recognized expert on countering violent extremism, worked as an adviser on former Secretary of State John Kerry's policy planning staff.

Ullah's legal travails stemmed from his extensive travels during his 18 months with USAGM. In court documents, Ullah admitted to submitting for reimbursement multiple falsified hotel invoices; falsifying taxi receipts; double-billing third party sponsors and USAGM for the same trips; and billing the agency for personal trips.

"He would obtain logos and other graphics online and use either an invoice generator or Microsoft Excel in order to create fraudulent hotel invoices," according to the prosecutor's sentencing memo.

At the same time he was stealing from USAGM, Ullah used similar methods to defraud Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. by submitting no fewer than 12 forged documents, according to the memo.

With his family members sitting in the second row of the courtroom, Ullah took the stand to express remorse for his criminal acts, breaking down at one point as he recounted explaining his actions to his mother.

"I lost my way," he said. "I lost my moral compass."

In an interview, Schamel said Ullah's "life goal is to find a way to make America safer and stop the radicalization of people in America."