Panel Faults NASA Inspector General, But No Laws Seen Broken

By | April 9, 2007 | Uncategorized

The NASA inspector general engaged in “abuse of authority … by creating an abusive work environment,” and also created an impression that he wasn’t properly independent of the NASA administration, a report by an administration ethics panel finds.

Those findings and others led several key members of Congress to demand that President Bush fire NASA Inspector General Robert Cobb.

As well, the Integrity Committee (IC) of the President’s & Executive Councils (ICPEC) on Integrity and Efficiency found that Cobb didn’t report the theft of some NASA files and that he blocked dissemination of a report.

But letters between James H. Burrus, the Integrity Committee chairman, and Clay Johnson, chairman of the ICPEC, soften the tone of the IC findings. Rather, the letters make clear:

  • Cobb committed no crime.

  • Members of the IC differed as to what action would be appropriate regarding Cobb.

  • The IC wasn’t recommending that Cobb be fired.

At the same time, leading lawmakers, in a letter to Bush dated April 2, stated that IC members agreed that firing might be appropriate. “The Integrity Committee took the unprecedented step of stating that, ‘All members of the committee further believed that disciplinary action up to and including removal, could be appropriate,'” noted Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee space, aeronautics and related matters subcommittee, and Rep. Brad Miller, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee investigations and oversight subcommittee, in their letter to Bush.

“Given the compelling weight of the evidence compiled by the Integrity Committee, we believe that the NASA inspector general can no longer be effective in his office and should be immediately replaced,” Nelson and Miller wrote.

Those two legislators were joined by Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the full Science and Technology Committee, in calling for Cobb’s firing.

The IC documents concerning Cobb run to hundreds of pages, and the House Science and Technology Committee and its investigations and oversight subcommittee permitted journalists to view the documents, which the Bush administration provided to the panel only after the panel began moving to subpoena them. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, March 12, 2007, page 2.)

“Chairman Miller and Senator Nelson and I agree that NASA is poorly served by an Inspector General who is not perceived as being completely independent,” Gordon said. “If whistleblowers and the Inspector General’s own staff do not feel that they can trust him or work with him, he cannot possibly be effective. NASA and the nation deserve better.”

The Documents

In a Jan. 22 letter to Johnson, Burrus reported that allegations confirmed by witnesses included assertions that Cobb used “a loud and nasty tone that included profanity” toward one employee “to the point of causing tears and her departure from the meeting.” He didn’t apologize for the profanity.

He also screamed at her on another occasion, concerning issuance of a search warrant, and termed a staff member’s work a “f—— piece of s—,” and he “slammed his fist on the table next to the staff member.” (The letter uses the actual words.)

Another witness described to the IC that Cobb termed special agents in the field “knuckle draggers,” while also telling the IC that morale among NASA inspector general staff members was “horrible.”

Cobb “confirmed using the F-word in his office and indicated he is ‘passionate when people are insubordinate to my face,’ but denies ‘cursing’ at employees,” according to the Burrus letter.

“The IC viewed this conduct as more than an aggressive management style or a way of expressing dissatisfaction with employee performance but as arbitrary or capricious conduct, which affected the rights of senior employees to a non-hostile and [non-] abusive workplace,” the letter states.

On another matter, the IC found that Cobb failed to maintain an appropriate appearance of arms-length independence from the NASA administration that the inspector general is supposed to oversee and watchdog.

Specifically, the IC questioned the relationship that Cobb maintained with former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, including lunching, golfing, and travel. Cobb referred to O’Keefe as his “boss,” and sought guidance from O’Keefe on the design of at least two inspector general audits.

Cobb also “sought … O’Keefe’s review of a draft [inspector general] opinion regarding the independence of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.”

Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 was damaged during launch by a chunk of foam insulation, and the damage caused the orbiter vehicle to disintegrate during reentry, with loss of the ship and crew.

On other issues, Cobb told Keefe about inspector general search warrants to be issued on a significant criminal investigation before the warrants were executed, the Burrus letter continued.

However, the documents don’t show any close relationship between Cobb and the current top space leader, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

A letter from Johnson to Griffin says that NASA should consider the appropriate action to take in response to the IC findings.

Griffin responded in a March 14 letter to Johnson that he would meet with Cobb to review the investigation findings, with a possible retraining for Cobb “at an appropriate resident course at the Federal Executive Institute … where he will be assisted in developing an individual leadership and management training plan,” with follow-up on that, and other steps.

“I believe that [such] actions will address any concerns I have after having reviewed” the matter, Griffin wrote.

He also added, “This has been a trying year for Mr. Cobb and I have been impressed with his continued focus on his professional obligations to the Congress and to” NASA. Griffin also noted that the probe of the inspector general office “does not contain evidence of a lack of integrity on the part of Mr. Cobb.”

Finally, the probe does not support a finding of “any actual conflict of interest or actual lack of independence on his part.”

Griffin Comments

Griffin, appearing yesterday on C-Span, stood by his recommendation that Cobb be retained.

While Griffin said it is true that Cobb was “rough” on his employees, posing “a management problem,” at the same time, “I am absolutely convinced [Cobb] has done nothing to compromise safety” of NASA operations.

Further, Griffin said, a review of the matter shows that “the authority of his office has not been abused.” While Cobb may have been harsh in dealing with subordinates, his actions fell well below the level that would prompt Griffin to recommend his ouster. “There were no illegalities or improprieties,” though there was overly harsh treatment of employees, he said. “So I made the recommendation that [Cobb] be retained” as inspector general.

On another matter, Griffin indicated that the future status of astronaut William “Billy” Oefelein still is unresolved.

Oefelein, a commander in the Navy detailed to NASA and a divorced father of two, was said to have had a relationship with an Air Force officer, Capt. Colleen Shipman. She was attacked by a rival for Oefelein’s affections, then-astronaut Lisa Nowak, who consequently faces criminal charges.

Asked about Oefelein’s status, Griffin said that NASA is “still looking at that.” Meanwhile, reviews and studies continue on how astronauts face stress and how to assist them, and their conclusions will be shared with Congress and the public when completed, Griffin said.

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