Forty-two years ago last week, writer Clifford Irving gave an interview to the news program “60 Minutes.” During that interview, Irving told a series of gross, blatant, easily disprovable lies. Irving was peddling a bogus autobiography of reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. According to Irving’s story, he had a series of bizarre, face-to-face meetings with Mr. Hughes during which the eccentric tycoon related his life story and authorized Irving to oversee its publication.
In fact, Irving never even met Howard Hughes. Even so, he managed to defraud his publisher out of an advance in excess of $700,000. Within days of Irving’s televised interview, Hughes, himself, exposed the lie in a telephone interview in which he completely debunked Irving’s story. As the evidence of his fraud grew to insurmountable proportions, Irving ultimately confessed, pleaded guilty to federal charges and did some prison time. Back then, most of us were astounded that anyone would have the gall to face a battery of television cameras and tell such easily exposed whoppers.
Of course, none of us is a stranger to lies. At some time in everyone’s life they are bound to find some reason to make a knowing misstatement. In fact, Mark Twain once observed, “lies are an abomination unto the Lord and a very present help in time of trouble.” But Irving had elevated the “bald-faced lie” to a level most of us had never even contemplated.
A headline appearing in the Washington Times has me thinking about Irving’s case. According to the Jan. 22 issue of that paper, John Beale, a highly placed administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency has been fleecing the American taxpayers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars for years. Sadly, we have grown accustomed to being robbed by federal bureaucrats.
What makes Beale’s case unusual is the fact he persuaded his superiors to continue to write paychecks while he was absent from the office by telling them a blatant, easily dis-provable lie. He told them he was on important assignments for the CIA and no one bothered to check. Apparently, Mr. Beale collected nearly $1 million of taxpayer money while he simply “loafed off” enjoying his private pursuits. According to one estimate, his paid time off amounted to approximately 2 ? years.
In recent years, good-natured Americans have been deceived by a string of shameless high-profile liars. We’ve been lied to by presidents, high-profile evangelists, revered sports figures, esteemed senators and representatives, sanctimonious clergymen, deceitful bureaucrats, trusted managers of charitable organizations and a host of others. In fact, blatant lying has become so commonplace that the latest scandal barely causes a blip on the social anxiety scale.
It really doesn’t pay to wonder for every liar who gets caught, how many get away with it?
One reason lying seems to be more common these days is that the consequences, if the liar is unfortunate enough to be exposed, are often so trivial. Many of the most outrageous liars in our history successfully weather the storm and maneuver themselves in position to tell us even more lies. We could point to a number of former presidents, senators and televangelists.
So how did Beale get away with it? He says it was easy. He credits his high level of competence, his ability to charm and disarm his colleagues and superiors, his resourceful crafting of a bogus but plausible story.
Taxpayers who faithfully forward their hard-earned money to the federal government year after year should be asking themselves, “Who’s minding the store?” In the absence of culpable complicity, gross incompetence or blatant nepotism, this would never happen in private business.
So how could it happen here? How could Beale continue to draw retention bonuses year after year when those bonuses were to expire in 2003? How could Beale continue to draw his paycheck for another 18 months after his retirement? How could Beale finagle a handicap parking sticker claiming to suffer from the lingering effects of malaria allegedly contracted in Vietnam when he never served in Vietnam? Why did no one ever asked for written confirmation that he was absent from the office on CIA business?
It is unlikely that any supervisory personnel at the EPA will be called to account for Beale’s fraudulent behavior. He, himself, pled guilty to his crimes and was sentenced to 32 months in prison.
There is one point on which we can trust Beale is telling the truth. When asked whether his wife will help repay the money he scammed from the taxpayers he says, “No, not a chance.” You can probably take that to the bank. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.