A counterterrorism expert survived near-death experiences in Pakistan only to fall victim to his own creative yet fraudulent paperwork.
Haroon Ullah, once a rising star at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, must spend three months in jail for cheating the federal government, a judge ruled last week.
Ullah must also pay $34,388.63 in restitution and serve 30 hours of community service “speaking/writing to high ranking civil servants in government telling them not to falsify documentation of their expenses as it is a crime,” U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III said.
Ullah’s Nov. 22 sentencing marks a stunning fall from grace for the former chief strategy officer for the USAGM, which oversees Radio and Television Martí, the Voice of America and other government broadcast operations. See “Dedicated patriot” stole from U.S. government.
“Haroon Ullah’s background is exceptional,” his lawyer wrote. “Born in Canada to Pakistani immigrants, he was brought to Eastern Washington as a toddler for his father’s job as a nuclear engineer with a Department of Energy contractor.”
A standout student who skipped grades and excelled at sports, he was in every way an All-American kid.
Ullah earned a master’s degree at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a doctorate at the University of Michigan. He wrote books about countering violent extremism.
In 2010, he joined the State Department and was “working side by side with generals, admirals and ambassadors,” his lawyer wrote.
“Haroon was being pulled into every significant development in American foreign policy” in the Middle East. “He was a trusted advisor, a valuable member of the team and doing what he wanted to do, making a real difference and protecting Americans and advancing America’s interests around the world.”
Ullah’s court file is full of glowing recommendations. See letters and more letters.
“Haroon worked for me 2010-2012 when I was U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan,” wrote Cameron Munter, now CEO and president of the EastWest Institute. “He was not just one of the many embassy employees. He was truly a standout, someone whose extraordinary knowledge and remarkable gifts made a real difference to American interests during this difficult time. He headed up our efforts in countering violent extremism, doing in practice what so many others simply talk about in theory: addressing the causes of (and the solutions to) terrorist behavior, especially among young people.”
He was energetic, bright, engaged – and effective. This was not just any time. During this tenure I oversaw the raid that resulted in the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad and a series of other incidents that made our work in Pakistan not only difficult but dangerous.
“Haroon was a key member of my team, helping us understand the roots of the challenges we faced and implementing efforts to turn the situation around. He showed extraordinary initiative and creativity. He also demonstrated great intellectual breadth and capacity. It was a time when anyone working for the American embassy was somewhat of a target – and as I recall, Haroon had some narrow escapes. He showed real character and courage, and I was quite grateful to him for that.”
Retired Marine Corps Gen. John A. Allen, former commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, also praised Ullah.
“I can confidently say that he is one of the most impressive young scholars and operations professionals that I have come across in nearly 50 years in the field. Haroon’s counterterrorism work in the field fighting Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIL has already helped save American lives,” Allen wrote.
Ullah became chief strategy officer for the USAGM in October 2017.
“USAGM had tapped Ullah to be one of its top leaders, and the agency had high hopes for him,” prosecutors wrote.
“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.” See samples of his fake invoices, insurance and medical claims.
Prosecutors say Ullah used “creative skills in falsifying documents.” One government 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.
“The defendant’s sustained pattern of deception is evidenced by the number of falsified and fraudulent documents 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.”
Prosecutors say Ullah used similar methods to defraud Liberty Mutual Insurance Company of $49,603.78 in connection with a claim for storm damage after a tree fell on his home’s roof.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
This is a case in which specific deterrence requires a period of incarceration in the Bureau of Prisons. 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.
Ullah’s lawyer cite mitigating factors in the case.
“Professionally, outwardly, Haroon was a smashing success. Unfortunately, as is often the case, there was more going on. In addition to the stress of his overseas posting (constant bombings, being held at gunpoint, constantly being followed and potentially targeted), Haroon suffered a number of personal tragedies.
“Haroon’s youngest brother, Muneer, passed away in 2016. The loss was devastating and unmooring. During the same time frame, Haroon went through a very difficult and contentious divorce before serendipity intervened and he became reacquainted with Naba Sharif and remarried.
“Unfortunately, Naba and Haroon suffered their own series of challenges with the loss of a pregnancy and the tragic circumstances where Naba’s mother suddenly slipped into a coma, on the same day that they learned they were pregnant again. While the joy of their daughter, now ten months old, is their greatest accomplishment, Naba’s mother’s condition seems to worsen by the day and even when they were able to cobble together money to buy a home for their growing family, a storm knocked a tree into the house destroying the roof and making it uninhabitable for the better part of a year.
“None of these personal circumstances are offered as an ‘excuse’ or an ‘explanation’ of Haroon’s misconduct. There is no justification being offered for his misconduct. He did what he has pleaded guilty to and has accepted responsibility and will continue to do so. These additional facts, not thoroughly explained in the comprehensive Presentence Investigative Report (PSR), are offered for context. Insight into the various significant stressors in Haroon (and Naba’s) lives which certainly are a factor in the path he went down during the months at issue.
“While the government indicates in its filing that trauma does not cause otherwise law abiding individuals to commit fraud, that position is not as clear as the government would have it. There are many ways, often illogical and seemingly incongruous that people react to serious stress and trauma. None of those reasons, however, are being offered as justification for Haroon’s conduct and equally importantly, he is working through his issues now in a constructive and open way with those who love him and care for him and there are coping mechanisms and support in place now going forward.”
USAGM placed Ullah on administrative leave in October 2018 and fired him on April 2, 2019.
“He lost his job over a year ago, has no primary income, and is practically broke with a wife and 9-month-old baby girl to support,” his father, Muhammed Kaleem Ullah, wrote in a character statement. “He has suffered tremendously.”
“He made some seriously bad decisions and he knows it,” wrote his mother, Zarfshan Ullah. “Haroon is a kind and gentle person. He has a big heart and will often tear up and cry spontaneously when he sees or hears something that touches him. I know that he will continue to seek redemption throughout his life.”
Aamir A. Rehman said Ullah “appreciates the severity of his errors.”
“I see Haroon as a dedicated father, husband, son, friend and patriot,” wrote Rehman, a friend. “He is, understandably, suffering greatly and will continue to suffer for his conduct. He feels humiliated and publicly shamed.”
Lawyer and former journalist Eileen M. O’Connor said Ullah’s expertise will be missed.
“Haroon’s work at the U.S. Agency for Global Media gave him an even bigger platform to fight disinformation and to degrade terrorist media networks and narratives,” she wrote.
His work has been noted by senior White House officials, Secretary Pompeo and others in the federal interagency. I only hope that work can be allowed to continue in the future, as his expertise is something we so desperately continue to need.
“Simply put, Haroon Ullah is too important an asset for this country’s national security apparatus to lose completely. We do not have people with his combined experience, academic background, analytical and practical skill sets to plug into as many areas of our national security units as needed. As a former warzone reporter, I know the kind of young men and women we need on the frontlines to fight these terrorists: hard-working and dedicated to the point they are willing to sacrifice their own lives to save others. Haraon has shown he is fully committed to protecting our country and has and will continue to save American lives, given the chance as he fights for redemption and rebuilds his life.”
Ullah’s wife, Naba Sharif, asked the judge for mercy before sentencing.
“He has certainly done wrong and for that he, and all of us, have been punished severely with a felony conviction. He has agreed, against the advice of his lawyer and his family, to a period of incarceration as punishment for his conduct. Not because he needs to be deterred or because he has not suffered enough, but because he is willing to accept this additional humiliation as proof of his genuine remorse.”
Both the government and defense lawyers agreed Ullah should serve 60 days in jail to be completed on weekends over a period of 20 weekends.
Judge Ellis disagreed and gave Ullah three months in prison. He will begin serving his term on Jan. 21.
The lawyer asked that Ullah be confined to a low-security facility such as the one in Cumberland, Maryland, where inmates manufacture license plates for federal vehicles.