Secret Agent Man

Former EPA official John C. Beale alleged he was a CIA agent for years, attributing his absences to covert missions, and charging the environmental agency nearly $900,000 in travel costs, bonuses and overtime pay. After confessing, he went to prison. His boss — Gina McCarthy — received a promotion.  

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When self-professed CIA agent John C. Beale left the halfway house in Philadelphia on June 1, his unheralded release marked the end of a bizarre saga that began quietly in 2000. For the next 13 years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Beale told his EPA colleagues that he worked for the CIA.  Finally, when confronted about his alleged covert activities in 2013, Beale claimed he had fabricated his espionage career to get out of work. By this point he had reportedly fleeced the government out of $866,168 in travel expenses, bonuses and compensation. He pleaded guilty of felony theft charges, promptly paid a seven-figure fine and was sentenced to 32-months in federal prison.

Beale served only 18 months before he walked, a veritable slap on the wrist for the crime to which he confessed.  But his boss, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy,  to whom Beale reported, survived the scandal unscathed and was actually promoted to head the agency in the wake of the controversy.

The press had a field day with the Beale affair. C-Span covered the resulting congressional hearings. NBC and the Washington Post reported the story,  as did various online publications and the Associated Press. Wire service coverage appeared in nearly 100 newspapers coast-to-coast. Newspapers that reported the story included the Albuquerque Journal, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Great Falls Tribune, Baxter Bulletin and the Poughkeepsie Journal.

In St. Louis, however, the whole sordid affair went unreported because the The St. Louis-Post-Dispatch failed to mention Beale’s misdeeds.

A significant story involving corruption at the highest levels of a federal agency  were overlooked. An entire metropolitan region  left uninformed by its only major daily newspaper, hundreds of thousands of readers kept in the dark.

For St. Louisans, it was as if the Beale affair never happened.

The lack of coverage by the Post-Dispatch was even more egregious because of the EPA’s mishandling of the West Lake Landfill clean up in St. Louis County.

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Radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project and Cold War era had been illegally dumped at the West Lake Landfill in 1973. The EPA had taken over the Superfund site in 1990. But by 2013, the agency had yet to clean up the mess, and the natives were getting restless. Thanks to social media,  a community group dedicated to the issue, STL Just Moms, grew by leaps and bounds. Among its primary goals:  the protection of human health and the removal of the waste from the Missouri River floodplain. Another of the organization’s main objectives is to ditch the EPA altogether and hand over the clean up to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

While the local outrage ramped up here, corruption charges were being leveled against top EPA officials implicated in the  Beale affair.  But in St. Louis few people knew about the agency’s troubles in Washington because of the local news blackout.

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In the nation’s capital, it was a big story. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives took a keen interest in the Beale’s shenanigans and lambasted EPA administrator McCarthy for her involvement.  On October 1, 2013,  for example, Beale himself  was grilled  before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform for hours. His written statement is 263-pages long.

Nevertheless, a blanket of censorship remained in place in St. Louis.

“The name is Beale, John Beale.”

Beale had started working at the EPA in 1988 and was soon elevated to the position of policy analyst. His areas of expertise included the Clean Air Act and climate change. In 2000, he began taking days off of work to allegedly attend CIA meetings. Over the course of the next decade his absences increased. By 2008, his days off increased dramatically, when he requested and received a six month hiatus to ostensibly take part in a CIA covert operation. After the Obama administration came into power in 2009, McCarthy became Beale’s boss in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, and his role as the EPA’s secret agent continued uninterrupted. She didn’t question his alleged CIA ties if anything she accepted the idea without reservation.

In September 2011, Beale and two other EPA officials threw a retirement party for themselves on a yacht in the Potomac River. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy attended the shindig. She considered Beale to be one of her most competent managers. At same time, she  was also aware of his alleged dual role as a CIA agent, but, nevertheless, lamented Beale’s  departure from the EPA. None of this raised any red flags for a long, long time.

But the saga gets weirder. Beale officially retired in early 2012 but he inexplicably continued to receive his full salary after his retirement. By this time, Beale’s paycheck, which included bogus bonuses, exceeded McCarthy’s  salary. He was the highest paid employee at the EPA and he wasn’t even showing up for work. Beale was pulling down a full-time salary of $206,000 from the EPA — after he had retired.

under the guise of national security

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When the EPA Office of Inspector General began investigating Beale, its probe was upended by a little-known subunit within EPA administrator Gina McCarthy’s inner sanctum. McCarthy’s chief of staff was in charge of the obscure detachment, which calls itself the EPA Office of Homeland Security.

This  questionable operation is not part of the Department of Homeland Security and was run without oversight, after being set up in 2003 to deal with possible terrorism threats against sensitive environmental sites. Its intended purpose was to coordinate protocol with the FBI. It has no statutory authority to conduct internal investigations. But that’s exactly what it did in John C. Beale’s case, much to consternation of the EPA Office of Inspector General.

Testifying before the same congressional panel that Beale appeared before, Assistant EPA Inspector General Patrick Sullivan said that the investigation of John Beale had been  obstructed because Beale had been tipped off that he was a subject of interest by McCarthy’s sketchy security apparatus run out her office and headed by Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, the administrator’s handpicked chief of staff.

“The OHS’ actions, which included several interviews with Mr. Beale, damaged the OIG’s subsequent investigation,” Sullivan told Congress.

McCarthy was far from the only one who believed Beale was a CIA agent. Some of Beale’s colleagues at the EPA still remain convinced that he was a covert operative. Moreover, Beale’s wife was under the assumption that her husband worked clandestinely for the CIA since 1994.

Nancy Kete, Beale’s spouse, met him when she was employed by the EPA. She took a sabbatical from her EPA duties in the early 1990s to work in Paris as an environmental advisor for the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization that grew out of the Marshall Plan, the United States government’s efforts to rebuild Europe after World War II. By the time the scandal broke in 2012, Kete had made a career change and was the managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, a position she held until this April.

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Kete’s credentials suggest that her professional ties may connect her more to the shadowy world of espionage than her husband’s career path. She reputedly was embarrassed by the exposure that her husband’s escapades received.

Under existing federal law, the CIA must inform other U.S. government agencies if any of its employees also work for the agency. When contacted, the CIA denied any association with Beale.

For his part, Beale expressed contrition for his lies, paid his fine of more than $1.3 million and served his time. In the wake of the scandal, Gina McCarthy was promoted to head the EPA.  The story that wasn’t reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has now been largely forgotten by the rest of America, too.

No progress has been made in cleaning up the  EPA’s West Lake Landfill Superfund site, as a change in presidential administrations nears. The stonewalling and the foot dragging  will likely continue into the next year.

Meanwhile, community activists in St. Louis are continuing to expose the shameful betrayal perpetrated by the U.S. government against its citizens despite lax coverage by the local news media.

Casual readers of spy thrillers are aware that it is standard operating procedure for the CIA to deny involvement when any of its covert actions are publicly exposed. It appears that the EPA operates on the same principle.

John C. Beale may now be long gone, but the game goes on.

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The First Secret City

A knock at my door woke me up before 8 a.m. one morning in June 2013. When I peeped out the window, the two men on my front porch struck me as being Mormons at first glance. I soon found out, however, that the neatly dressed pair were not concerned about my salvation but whether I was a terrorist.

The FBI agents departed my apartment a half hour later, after I debriefed them on the subject of my documentary and assured them that my activities were not intent upon disturbing domestic tranquility. My cooperation with federal law enforcement included naming my collaborator, the co-director of this film. So in a very real sense, I am an FBI informant.

The G-men had been dispatched to my doorstep by the Department of Homeland Security, after my license plate number had been turned over by a security guard at the Mallinckrodt Chemical plant on North Broadway in St. Louis. The security guard had stopped us on a public street on a Sunday morning, wanting to know why we were photographing the facility. He told us then that our names would be provided to Homeland Security, but I had dismissed the warning as an idle threat.

The agents were stern but polite. I did most of the talking, filling the silence in my living room with pleas of innocence. They wanted to know if I had any terrorists intentions. I told them we were making a documentary on the nuclear waste that Mallinckrodt had created as a part of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent Cold War.

The agents seemed surprised. They said they were unaware of the issue.

They are not alone.

In the 70-plus years since Mallinckrodt first began generating radioactive waste as a byproduct of its government-sponsored uranium processing work, a majority of St. Louisans have remained uninformed about the contamination that continues to threaten their health and the environment.

As a reporter for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, I had covered the issue decades earlier, beginning in the early 1990s. I became reintroduced to the subject in 2008 when my editor at Illinois Times in Springfield sent me a thick press packet that had been sent to the newspaper. The contents of the manila envelope had been assembled by Larry Burgan, a former steelworker from Granite City, Ill. who had been exposed to radioactive contamination in his former work place. Burgan had started a one-man campaign to shed light on the problem that impacted not only his fellow workers but nearby residents of the plant in Venice, Ill. where had worked.

Months went by before I started going over the materials Burgan had painstaking collated. After reading it, I called him and asked for an interview. I then wrote a story based on Burgan’s research for an online magazine FOCUS/midwest in May 2009 and did a follow-up that September. But unlike hundreds of other stories I had written in my journalism career, I didn’t let this one go. I began investigating the subject further myself.

In early 2010, I enlisted the support of a local videographer and started working on a film on this subject. That project ended more than two years later because of a disagreement over the content and direction of the film. Countless hours of hard work was lost as a result.

In late 2012, my original idea was revived with with the help of my new partner Alison Carrick, the co-director and cinematographer of The First Secret City. Without her hard work and devotion to this project the film would have never been completed. Her understanding of the issue and the narrative form combined with a keen eye and an uncompromising dedication to the creative process can be seen and felt in every frame of this film.

The title is based on the little-known-about role that St. Louis played in the making of the first atomic bomb. Before the creation of the secret cities of Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford, the Manhattan Project hired the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis to refine the first uranium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. For the next two decades, Mallinckrodt continued its classified work for the Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War. The resulting radioactive waste contaminated numerous locations in the St. Louis area some of which have not been cleaned up 70 years after the end of World War II. Told through the eyes of an overexposed worker, the story expands through a series of interviews that careen down a toxic pathway leading to a fiery terminus at a smoldering, radioactively-contaminated  landfill. The First Secret City reveals a forgotten history and its continuing impact on the community in the 21st Century, uncovering past wrongdoing and documenting the renewed struggles to confront the issue.

–C.D. Stelzer