Last month, John Beale admitted under oath in federal court to lying for years about being an undercover CIA agent.
But many of Beale's friends and former U.S. EPA colleagues don't buy that confession.
"There are people who still believe he's a secret agent man," said a former EPA employee who knew Beale. Others ask whether the former EPA air official might be sacrificing himself to protect the CIA.
"It doesn't seem implausible that the CIA wouldn't mind hanging someone out to dry if it would otherwise compromise sources," said a former congressional staffer who worked with Beale.
Said Ivan Sievers, a longtime friend of Beale, "John is a very trustworthy, reliable, decent person. I don't know of anybody other than my wife I would trust more than John Beale."
Federal prosecutors see things quite differently. According to the Justice Department's case against him, "Beale never worked with any element or department of the Central Intelligence Agency." He's due for a December sentencing hearing and faces up to 37 months in prison on top of owing the government more than $1 million in restitution and fines.
"John Beale stole from the government for more than a decade by telling lies of outlandish proportions," U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. said last month.
Beale's story is complicated. He's a well-liked, accomplished federal bureaucrat who has admitted he impersonated a CIA agent to "puff up the image of myself," stole government cash and lied about having malaria (Greenwire, Sept. 27).
And his motivations are perplexing. He told investigators he spent his paid time off from the agency working around the house, riding his bicycle and reading books.
Beale, 64, was a longtime senior official in EPA's air office who worked on the landmark Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. He was well-known throughout EPA's upper management echelons and on Capitol Hill.
When the news of his deception broke, stunned people who knew him were asking each other, "Do you believe that?" said Frank O'Donnell, president of the nonprofit group Clean Air Watch. "We thought it was really sad," said O'Donnell, who met Beale more than a decade ago through official meetings on air issues.
But many of Beale's allies in Washington and old friends still have his back, even after he confessed to a felony.
"Whatever John did, John is a good man," the former EPA employee said. Other former co-workers declined to speak about him at all, saying they still consider him a friend.
Robert Brenner, a longtime friend of Beale who recruited him to the agency and was his boss for a time, even let Beale stay in his guest room during his criminal proceedings. Brenner has gotten entangled in the controversy himself as lawmakers question how Beale's fraud went undetected (Greenwire, Oct. 1).
'Very warm and gracious'
Beale was Sievers' neighbor when he lived in a rental house outside Lake City, Minn., in the late 1970s, Sievers said.
He went to the Sievers' kids' sporting events, and he and Sievers often rode their Honda motorcycles together. Sievers remembers that Beale "did a lot of walking" when he lived there. He used to chop firewood with Sievers. And he had a large, black dog named George.
The two men have kept in touch. Sievers and his wife, Linda, visited Beale at his home in Arlington, Va., a few years ago. And they have spoken this month, Sievers said.
He's heard about the accusations against his friend.
"I don't believe it," Sievers said. "I never questioned anything of John after I got to know him."
Beale was born in 1948 in St. Louis County, Minn., according to public records. His father, C. Gordon Beale, was a clergyman at the United Church of Christ, and his mother, Marcella, was a partner in the ministry, according to their obituaries.
Although Beale never served in Vietnam, according to EPA's inspector general's office, he did serve as an Army medic in the early 1970s at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and Fort Huachuca in Arizona. He was discharged honorably.
He earned a bachelor's degree in 1975 from the University of California, Riverside, where he studied political science and sociology, according to EPA's inspector general's office. Beale later moved East, simultaneously earning a Master of Public Administration degree from Princeton University and a law degree from New York University. He has said he counseled veterans returning from service while he was at Princeton.
Beale has a sister, and he and his wife raised his nephew, according to a family friend.
He is married to Nancy Kete, another former EPA employee and veteran of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. EPA investigators said Beale admitted to telling his wife and closest friends that he worked for the CIA, which was documented by emails and other sources.
After leaving EPA, Kete spent 13 years at the World Resources Institute and in 2010 created Sustainable Mobility Finance LLC. She also served on President Obama's National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, working on the team in charge of corporate safety and risk management. She's now managing director of the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation.
Beale and his wife support Democratic political candidates. Beale donated $500 to Obama's 2008 primary campaign and another $500 to Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine's campaign last year, federal election records show. Kete donated to Sen. Tom Udall's (D-N.M.) campaign in 2008, to former Sen. Jim Webb's (D-Va.) campaign in 2006, to former Virginia Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello's campaign in 2010, and to Pennsylvania Democratic congressional candidate Jackson Eaton in 2011 and 2012.
Beale and Kete couldn't be reached for comment.
"They're very nice, ethical people," said a neighbor in their Arlington neighborhood. The pair attended neighborhood association meetings on their quiet cul-de-sac in Arlington, that person said, adding that the couple are now renting out their home. Beale's lawyer told a federal judge that he's now living in New York.
Beale paid $536,000 in 1996 for the townhouse, according to property records.
The neighbor remembers Beale as "very warm and gracious." That person recalls the family having a dog that died a few years ago and an SUV. Beale sometimes rode his bicycle, the neighbor said, adding, "I didn't notice it happening an unusual amount." There are several bicycle trails in the neighborhood.
The neighbor is also firmly in the camp of those who say Beale is innocent.
"I think it's a lie," he said. "I think the government is doing a blame game on him."
'Larger than life'
Despite his absences under the guise of working for the CIA and being sick with malaria, Beale was respected for his work on air pollution and international climate change issues.
"John was great at international relations," said the former EPA employee. And even though Beale was often out sick -- due to what co-workers thought was malaria -- the work still got done, his former colleague said. "He got some really good, smart people around him."
By 2012, Beale's base salary had grown to $165,300, according to a database kept by New Jersey's Asbury Park Press. That's more than EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy made that year, when she was head of the air office; her base salary was $155,500 (Greenwire, Sept. 5).
When EPA was working with lawmakers on the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, Beale and his colleagues spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill. "He was extremely competent; he was well-liked by all the staff," the former congressional aide said. "There's nothing about his personality from what I knew that suggested that he was involved in any kind of a scheme."
Still, some who knew him said he had some mysterious qualities.
"One always felt that John had things going on. There was a sense that ... there were things he wasn't telling you," said a second former EPA employee who worked with Beale. "At times, you couldn't reach him, or you had a question and you'd wait a day or two to hear back from him."
Beale's CIA work was something of an open secret around the agency. He didn't speak about it to all of his colleagues, but it was widely discussed. "There was definitely in the air a rumor that he worked at the CIA," the second EPA employee said. "For government employees, it's very intriguing to think you are working with a colleague who might be working for the CIA."
O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch said Beale "was the kind of guy that always seemed larger than life," particularly for a bureaucrat.
The first former EPA employee compared Beale to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the 1977 "Star Wars" film "A New Hope." A stormtrooper asks to see Luke Skywalker's identification, and Obi-Wan Kenobi says, with a wave of his hand, "You don't need to see his identification." The guard then allows them to pass without checking his credentials.
"John has that quality, you believed him," the former EPA staffer said.
Reporter Jason Plautz contributed.
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