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A former high-level official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pleaded guilty Friday to stealing nearly $900,000 of taxpayer dollars by pretending to work for the CIA.

For years, John Beale disappeared from the office and explained his lengthy absences by telling his bosses he was doing top-secret work.

Beale never worked for the CIA, never had top-secret security clearance and carried on a “pattern of deception for over 10 years,” said Magistrate Judge John Facciola.

Beale, 64, a former deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Air and Radiation, was charged in August with collecting nearly $900,000 in pay and bonuses for work he avoided performing at the EPA.

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Under a plea deal with prosecutors, Beale faces 30 to 37 months in prison. The deal also calls for Beale to pay restitution of $886,000, forfeit an additional $507,000 and pay a fine of up to $60,000. The final decision will be made by the sentencing judge in the case, Ellen Segal Huvelle. No sentencing date has been set.

Beale, wearing glasses and a gray suit without a tie, managed a slight, grim smile after the proceedings. He was released on personal recognizance and will return to Manhattan, where he now lives.

“John Beale stole from the government for more than a decade by telling lies of outlandish proportions,” Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said in a statement.

The agency’s inspector general, Arthur Elkins Jr., said Beale was able to get away with the fraud for so long because of “an absence of even basic internal controls at the EPA.”

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

New details emerged Friday about Beale’s scheme. During a 12-year period, prosecutors said, he was away from the office for at least 102 days under the guise of working for the CIA. In total, he took about 2 ½ years off from work.

He took five personal trips to Los Angeles for what he said was a “special research project” and charged the government $57,000 for his travel. To obtain a parking space, he lied to his managers about having contracted malaria while serving in Vietnam. He never served in Vietnam, according to the statement of offense Facciola summarized in court.

The case has attracted political attention, in part because Beale worked for the new EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, for at least a part of the time he was cheating the system.

McCarthy’s defenders have said privately that she helped uncover Beale’s fraud, referred the case to the agency’s inspector general and forced Beale to retire.

The top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. David Vitter, La., has called for additional investigation by the EPA’s inspector general.

Beale is scheduled to testify next week at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the inspector general’s investigation.

Beale began his career at the EPA in 1989. Early on, his air-quality expertise led to many legitimate overseas trips to places such as China, South Africa and England, and qualified him for annual bonuses, according to people familiar with the case.

His frequent international travel also allowed him to cultivate an aura of mystery, according to his former colleagues. When he started disappearing from the office for long periods in 2000, he told colleagues he was working on an “intra-agency special advisory group,” according the court filing.

In 2008, Beale was absent from the office from June through December, but still collected a paycheck. He told a series of managers over the years that he was doing work at Langley, in a reference to the CIA.

At one point, Beale emailed his managers to say that he was away on international travel. In fact, he was at home in the Washington, D.C., area or on Cape Cod, Mass., according to the plea agreement.

After Beale’s retirement party on a dinner cruise on the Potomac River in 2012, his manager inquired with human resources and discovered that he was still being paid by the agency.

When asked by the judge if the account of his deception was true, Beale responded, “Yes, it is, your honor.”

Beale and his attorney declined to comment after the hearing.

The $886,000 that Beale agreed to pay back to the government includes the time he took off from work, as well as the travel reimbursement, a retention bonus that was supposed to expire after 2003 but went on through 2013, and the parking space near an EPA building, that was valued at $8,000.

Mark Lowenthal, a former CIA official who is now president of the Intelligence & Security Academy, said a person who was legitimately working undercover would never have explicitly told colleagues “I’ve got secret work to do,” as Beale did.

“His whole story was wholly implausible, and unfortunately, somebody should have been smart enough to realize,” Lowenthal said. “But this is Washington, and people never know who is who, and are tickled by the secret stuff going on.”

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