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Ex-EPA official accused of taking long mystery trips

– Over the past 12 years, John Beale was often away from his job as a high-level staffer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He cultivated an air of mystery and explained his lengthy absences by telling his bosses that he was doing top-secret work, including for the CIA.

For years, apparently, no one checked. Now, Beale is charged with allegedly stealing nearly $900,000 from the EPA by receiving pay and bonuses he did not deserve. He faces up to three years in prison.

Beale, 64, who was a senior policy adviser in the Office of Air and Radiation, is expected to plead guilty at a hearing scheduled for Monday at U.S. District Court in Washington.

“This is a situation where one individual went to great lengths to deceive and defraud the U.S. government,” EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said.

At agency headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Beale fostered an enigmatic image. He frequently traveled overseas to China, South Africa and England, according to several people who worked with him. He would describe his trips and mention a lingering case of malaria.

The Arlington, Va., resident told colleagues that his stints away from the office were because of “sensitive work for another agency,” according to an official familiar with the situation who asked not to be named because the case is pending.

“I even asked him about it, as a joke,” said a person who knows Beale through work on environmental issues and spoke on condition of anonymity. “We all actually believed that maybe there was something going on. He just kind of laughed it off.”

In recent weeks, the matter has taken on some political weight. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, called the alleged scheme a “massive fraud” and has demanded additional investigation by the inspector general to determine whether the alleged corruption extends further in the agency that protects the nation’s air, water and land.

Vitter pointed out that Beale had worked for Gina McCarthy, who now leads the EPA, for at least part of the time that he allegedly stole agency funds. He had threatened to filibuster McCarthy’s nomination to lead the agency over an unrelated matter.

McCarthy’s defenders said privately that she discovered the alleged activity and brought it to the attention of the authorities. She later forced Beale to retire in April 2013, according to a person familiar with the investigation.