WASHINGTON — Another high-ranking former employee of the Environmental Protection Agency came under fire Tuesday as members of Congress grilled him about accepting an $8,000 discount on a Mercedes-Benz allegedly arranged by a lobbyist and friend who did business with the EPA.
Robert Brenner, a former deputy assistant administrator in the EPA Office of Air and Radiation, acknowledged that he accepted the discount from the lobbyist, identified as Patrick Raher. During questioning, Brenner also said he had recommended another close friend and subordinate, John Beale, for a second round of lucrative "retention bonuses" three years after Beale bought out Brenner's share of a Cape Cod, Mass., home they owned.
Brenner's admissions came during a hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which was investigating how Beale stole nearly $900,000 from the EPA over nearly two decades by pretending to work for the CIA. Beale pleaded guilty Friday to collecting pay, bonuses and travel reimbursements while he vacationed, visited relatives or stayed home and told superiors that he was working for the CIA.
But Beale invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination when the committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., began questioning him Tuesday. Lawmakers then spent more than two hours blasting EPA managers and peppering Brenner about his own actions.
"Simply put, Mr. Beale was a con artist, and the American taxpayers were his mark," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
New information on Beale surfaced at Tuesday's hearing, including that he charged the EPA $14,000 for first-class airfare to London — instead of $1,000 for a coach ticket — and $1,066 per night for four nights in a hotel there.
Issa said he was introducing legislation to deny pensions to federal employees convicted of thefts like Beale's. Currently, employees can lose their pensions only if convicted of such crimes as treason and espionage.
"I did not come prepared to discuss this set of issues," Brenner told Issa. He noted that he had revealed the car discount on his 2011 financial disclosure form.
Assistant Inspector General Patrick Sullivan, another witness, said that Brenner was investigated for accepting the gift. He said his office thought it could prove that a crime was committed, but the Justice Department's Office of Public Integrity declined, Sullivan said, and Brenner retired before the office could interview him.
Brenner was a longtime friend of Raher's and worked with him when Raher was on the Clean Air Act Advisory Committee from 1992 to 2002, according to a person familiar with their relationship. Brenner accepted the discount in 2010, when Raher was lobbying the EPA for Mercedes on fuel-economy standards. That issue involved Brenner's office, but he did not work on it, he said at the hearing. Justin Shur, Brenner's attorney, said "Rob's testimony speaks for itself." Raher did not return a call to his law office.
Brenner and Beale bought the vacation home in the early 1980s, before Brenner recruited Beale — a friend from graduate school — to the EPA's Air and Radiation Office. Brenner recommended Beale for a three-year retention bonus in 1991 and for another in 2000. Beale actually collected the bonuses for 22 years because of EPA mistakes.
Beale bought Brenner's share of the home in 1997, about three years before Brenner recommended him for further bonuses. Shur said "there is simply no link between the two" actions.