Rob Brenner and John Beale met at Princeton University in the late 1970s and co-owned a vacation home. They worked together for more than two decades at U.S. EPA, carpooled to work and met regularly for early-morning breakfasts and Friday night dinners with their wives. They even had a joint retirement party on a Potomac River cruise in late 2011.
As they planned to exit EPA in June 2011, Brenner told Beale in an email how much he treasured their relationship.
"Back in '88, I thought I'd get to spend 2 or 3 years working with you on a pretty cool political/policy project," he wrote. "I still can't believe it turned into 23 years of working with my best friend to try to make some good things happen -- I lucked out."
Then their friendship -- and Brenner's luck -- took a turn for the worse.
Beale is now inmate No. 33005-016 at a federal prison in Cumberland, Md.
He's serving a 32-month sentence after pleading guilty to stealing government cash while lying about doing secret CIA work for years. His fraud has become the subject of ongoing congressional scrutiny, the center of jokes on cable comedy shows and fodder for gossip in and about EPA.
Many of Beale's friends and co-workers squirmed on the sidelines as it all unfolded -- but not Brenner.
As Beale's best friend and former supervisor, he's been ensnared in the controversy himself. The ordeal has strained -- if not ended -- their three-decade friendship, and Brenner has seen his reputation tarnished after decades building up his air policy chops as an EPA civil servant.
Brenner's entanglement came into the public spotlight during a House hearing last October on Beale's fraud. The secret agent impersonator invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege to remain silent, while lawmakers grilled Brenner on everything from his finances to his personal life. Friends and former colleagues winced as they watched footage of the hearing.
Lawmakers pressed Brenner on a discount he'd gotten on a Mercedes-Benz with the help of a lobbyist and questioned his decisions to recruit his friend and recommend him for retention bonuses at EPA. Brenner even revealed that Beale was staying in his guest room during his criminal proceedings, prompting laughter and incredulity from lawmakers on the House panel (Greenwire, Oct. 1, 2013).
Few public employees get air time on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," but Brenner did late last year. The show ran a segment on Beale's sentencing, including video of the awkward line of questioning from the House hearing.
The scrutiny didn't end when Beale reported to prison last month. The outlandish story is still generating headlines and conversations among EPA employees who knew the two former air officials, and Beale's work emails are being released in response to public disclosure requests.
Meanwhile, the EPA inspector general is preparing reports about how the fraud slipped through the cracks, while congressional Republicans are keeping up pressure to hold current and former EPA officials accountable.
Last month, Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter's office issued a report titled, "Robert Brenner's Role in John Beale Saga," one in a series of memos looking at when EPA officials may have found out about Beale's lies.
"Evidence suggests that Brenner played a pivotal role in enabling Beale's fraud, whether that fraud was accepting unearned bonuses, stealing time from EPA, or impersonating a CIA official, Brenner's actions both enabled and covered for John Beale," Vitter's office said.
"It is unclear whether Brenner's actions were done with the intent of aiding and abetting Beale's crimes or out of willful ignorance. Either way, Brenner should be called on to account for his actions."
Respected civil servant with a 'brag wall'
It's not what Brenner -- or those who knew him -- expected when he left EPA in 2011. He had a sterling reputation, stacks of awards and a cozy retirement ahead of him.
"Rob was a very professional guy and enjoyed a lot of respect in the organization," said Robert Sussman, who held top political jobs at EPA during both the Clinton and Obama administrations. "Most people would say that he made a very big contribution and was really one of the pillars of the air office."
Brenner, now 60, was in his mid-20s and just a few years out of graduate school at Princeton University when he joined the fledgling agency in 1979. By 1988, he was promoted to head the agency's air policy office, a post that he held through five presidential administrations.
His career was defined by his work on the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, he recently told the House panel investigating the Beale case. After helping to get the sweeping air law drafted and passed, Brenner said, he spent years getting it going. He also ticked off a long list of awards he received from Republican and Democratic administrations, including a distinguished career award when he retired.
"He worked unbelievable hours," said a former EPA colleague who spoke on condition of anonymity. That person used to regularly reach Brenner at his desk phone at 8 p.m. and watched as he carted big piles of work home on the weekends.
During his years at EPA, Brenner had amassed an impressive "brag wall," that former colleague said, referring to collections of awards and photos of Brenner with presidents and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.
'There are people who have his back'
Brenner won the allegiance of many people in Washington who have watched with concern as he's become a part of the Beale drama.
"People care about him, and they wouldn't have the same reaction to many other people in Washington. I don't know one person who dislikes Rob," said a friend and colleague who has known him for more than 30 years. "There are people who have his back."
Another person who knew him during his time at EPA said Brenner is "a really kind person," who was nice to everyone from EPA employees to bus drivers. "He was the sort of person who would always stop and thank the driver," that person said.
Brenner had the respect of EPA's management and was seen by co-workers as being in the agency's inner circle, according to former co-workers.
When he retired in 2011, he had a fellowship lined up with the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, where he would be directing a project on air pollution technologies. He had also joined the Keystone Foundation Energy Board, the board of CMC Energy Co. and an advisory board for a Princeton University scholarship program.
His September 2011 retirement party on a Potomac River cruise (which he shared with Beale and another former EPA air employee) was attended by top EPA officials, including then-EPA air chief Gina McCarthy and EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe.
"We did it together at one time because we'd kind of all been like the Three Musketeers of the Clean Air Act," Beale told House staffers last December.
That shared retirement party -- like much of Brenner's relationship with Beale -- has been scrutinized by investigators and lawmakers. Beale didn't officially retire from EPA until 2013, and he continued to take home a paycheck even though he was on unauthorized leave from the agency from about June 2011 until December 2012, according to court documents.
In the wake of the scandal, Brenner hired an attorney to help navigate the situation and requests from Congress and decided not to renew his contract with the Duke Nicholas Institute.
It's all taken a toll on him, according to his friends and former colleagues. Brenner declined to comment for this story.
The person who worked with him at EPA said that in the wake of the Beale saga, he "seems pretty depressed. ... I got the sense that he sort of realized how easy it is to have a great reputation completely evaporate."
In the midst of it all, Brenner's father died late last year. Norbert Brenner, a German-born Holocaust survivor, immigrated to Washington, D.C., in 1938 and ran a photography shop on Pennsylvania Avenue for more than two decades, according to an obituary published in the Washington Post. He died on Oct. 26, just a few weeks after Brenner testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
"I think people are very sad to see the way this has all hurt his reputation," said the person who knew Brenner from his time at EPA.
His friends and former colleagues hope to see that reputation recover when the controversy dies down.
"Everything that's happened has not made me think differently about Rob," said his former EPA co-worker. "I think over time [his] reputation will get restored."
From best friends to 'occasionally in touch'
Beale lied about being a CIA agent even to his wife and closest friends. And Brenner was no exception.
Beale told House staffers in December, "I think I specifically lied to Rob Brenner," when asked who at EPA thought he worked for the CIA. It was considered an open secret at EPA that Beale was a CIA operative, but Beale has said he didn't discuss it widely. He added that he had never told Brenner the truth about his fraud.
Brenner told lawmakers at the October hearing that he was "very disappointed and saddened" by what Beale had done and was "angry at Mr. Beale for that kind of behavior."
Beale frequently made references to CIA work in emails to Brenner and other EPA colleagues, according to 362 pages of emails recently obtained by Greenwire under a Freedom of Information Act request. In July 2009, Beale told Brenner he was "back for 3 days for a quick meeting at Langley." Beale's emails often use "Langley" to refer to the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Va.
In January 2011, Beale wrote to Brenner: "Last night I told you that today I would be at EPA, State, and Langley. Overnight plans changed. Just State and Langley today. See you tonight." Brenner thanked him for the update and said he and his wife were looking forward to seeing him.
Beale and Brenner often exchanged emails about riding into work together, grabbing breakfast and making plans to watch sports or movies.
Brenner invited Beale to breakfast in June 2009, to which Beale responded, "Sounds great. See you at 7 at the usual place." In May of 2009, Beale invited Brenner -- who he often called "RB" in emails -- to see the movie "Star Trek," a prequel to the sci-fi series.
And in January 2011, Brenner emailed Beale when he was leaving work about their plans that evening. "We're taping the game, so if you're able to come over, we won't start showing the second half until you arrive," he said.
Brenner stuck by Beale, even after his guilty plea.
"When he left the hospital after his throat problems, because he had rented out his house in Arlington, he's staying in my guest room now," Brenner told the House panel in October, sparking lawmakers' outrage. "I agreed that he could stay in our guest room when he has either court proceedings, hearings, medical issues in the area."
Beale had recently had emergency surgery to remove a growth in his throat, and his doctor had told him he couldn't be alone. But Brenner's hospitality struck some lawmakers as outrageous, given the circumstances. Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) quipped to Brenner, "You have a very understanding wife."
It even shocked Beale, who told House staffers in December that Brenner's decision to take him in "surprised me, given all the trouble I'd caused them."
Things have changed since then. Late last year, Beale said that his relationship with Brenner had been profoundly affected, although they were "occasionally in touch" at that time. Asked whether there had been a chilling of their friendship, he replied, "Yes."