An amazing fraud

So, this morning, made me some pancakes, poured a glass of moo-juice, sat down to watch some TV with my breakfast, as is generally my wont.  I’d taped last night’s Daily Show, and started there, as usual.  Jon Stewart began with this story and I sat there, jaw dropping on the floor.  John Beale, you are my newest hero.

Sort of hero. Villain, I meant.  Boo! I mean, Boo!!!!  Bad EPA administrator!  Bad!  I guess, kind of.  You did what, again?  Seriously?  Wow, that’s amazing.  I mean terrible.  That’s what I mean.

Like most Americans, I have a kind of sneaking admiration for conmen and hucksters; hence the continued popularity of caper films.  I mean, we made folk heroes out of sociopathic thugs like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd; we turned Willie Sutton into a lovable scamp, Billy the Kid into myth, Jesse James into legend.  Made hit movies out of the exploits of Butch and Sundance and Bonnie and Clyde.  And don’t get me started on Robin Hood. In all his iterations.

In real life, we don’t.  In real life, we’re delighted to see Bernie Madoff get perp-walked into the slammer.  If you’ve ever been the victim of a real-life scam, it sucks. My wife and I got identity-thefted a couple of years ago, and even though we didn’t end up losing anything, and did get our money back, the whole experience was frustrating, draining, aggravating.  We don’t really like crooks.  We like clever fictional crooks.  We like the Dortmunder gang.  We’re fascinated by Keyser Söze. We like Saffron (the wonderful Christina Hendricks, pre-Mad Men), and get that Mal’s into her because he’s as much a scamp as she is.  (Sorry, you either get Firefly references, or you don’t; they take too long to explain).  We watch the Oceans‘ movies, marveling at the cleverness of Pitt/Clooney/Damon because, after all, who’s really getting ripped off here?  A worse bad guy?  We’re connossieurs: The Sting or The Italian JobThe Illusionist or Brothers Bloom?  (Don’t know of a movie with a better opening than what that clip shows).

We also admire/don’t admire workplace slackers.  We love, Wally, for example, in the Dilbert world, who somehow keeps his job year after year, which seems entirely to consist of walking around with a coffee cup in hand.  We like the Simpsons’ episodes where Homer displays yet again his awesome incompetence.  We love The Office and Office Space, where Steve Carell and Gary Cole, respectively, demonstrate the world’s worst bosses.  And we cheer, in Office Space, when Peter Gibbons decides to stop doing his job, stopping by work only to clean fish he’s caught while slacking, and as a result, gets a raise and promotion from his clue-less bosses.

John Beale, however, takes the cake.  Beale had a government job, in the Environmental Protection Agency, as a deputy assistant administrator, in the office of Air and Radiation.  Okay, ‘deputy assistant adminstrator’ doesn’t sound very impressive–it almost sounds made-up.  But Office of Air and Radiation?  Dude, we want good people in that job, do we not?  We sort of need air, and we’d prefer it breathable.  And radiation? If this guy’s in charge of the office monitoring levels of radiation. . . .

Plus he’s a climate change expert, apparently.  A well-respected published scientist.

But at some point, he seems to have made two important realizations about his life, and one very important decision.  The first realization seems to be that he didn’t want to go to work much anymore.  That he’d way rather get paid to hang around at home, or go on trips on the government’s dime.  The second realization seems to have been that the people he was working for were, for whatever reason, astonishingly gullible.

So for the past ten years, when he wanted some time off, he told his bosses he was, in addition to being an EPA administrator, a spy.  A CIA operative.  And that he therefore needed to not come in for a few weeks, so that he could fly to Pakistan or someplace and be James Bond for awhile.

He got raises.  He got retention bonuses.  He got free first class tickets to California, to see his family, and London to see shows.  He even got a personal parking space near the building where he worked at the job he was busy ditching, because of the malaria he’d contracted in Vietnam.  Even his wife thought he was a real CIA agent.

Except, of course, he wasn’t a CIA agent, and he didn’t have malaria, nor was he a Vietnam vet.

So what did he do with all his time off?  He’d fly to California. . . to visit his aging parents.  He’d sit at home, and . . . ride his bicycle.  Or catch up on his reading.  He’d vacation in Cape Cod.

My guess is, the thrill of getting away with it is what drove him.  He didn’t steal money out of the company safe; he stole a salary he didn’t earn, plane flights he wasn’t entitled to.  He stole time.  When you get a job, you agree to trade your time for their money.  Your employer is entitled to tell you how you’ll spend a certain number of hours–in exchange, he pays you.  John Beale liked the pay part, and seems to have been very good at the work part.  But, I don’t know, maybe he was getting older, maybe the work had gotten stale.  Going all Walter Mitty on the US government must have seemed . . . exciting.  More exciting, certainly, than monitoring air quality.

This seems like it might be one of those rare political news stories without a partisan angle.  I did enjoy the clips I’ve seen of the House Oversight Committee, seeing Jason Chaffetz’ look like his mind had been completely blown by this guy.  And then, the ranking Democrat on the committee wearing exactly the same expression.  Politico reported that they’re talking about federal legislation, making it super-duper-double-bad illegal to not go to work and get paid and make up stories about it.  Knock yourselves out, Congress–this is probably not going to happen much, or ever, again.

Beale got caught, eventually.  Agreed to pay a little shy of a million in restitution, and will spend two and a half years in prison.  He’s such a mild looking guy, undistinguished middle-aged man, balding, a little dumpy.  Hardly a criminal mastermind. Maybe Paul Giamatti plays him in the movie. Please please please let Wes Anderson direct.  Isn’t there a part of you rooting for him?


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