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Criminal Probe May Begin In NASA Controversy, Lawmaker Says

By | May 28, 2007

      The top bipartisan lawmakers on a key House panel may ask the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation into a controversy surrounding NASA Inspector General Robert “Moose” Cobb.

      So said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee investigations and oversight subcommittee, speaking to reporters after a hearing that probed destruction of video recordings of a meeting last month.

      Miller said he would be joined in the investigation request by Rep. E. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, ranking Republican on the subcommittee.

      “I think we would jointly” request the U.S. Attorney General “to conduct a criminal investigation,” Miller said.

      As well, Cobb may be called to testify in a further hearing by the subcommittee, he said.

      In the subcommittee hearing last week, lawmakers heard the views of two officials involved in the Cobb controversy, Paul Morrell, NASA chief of staff, and Michael C. Wholley, NASA general counsel.

      They were questioned closely by subcommittee members concerning a meeting that was held after criticism of Cobb for being abusive to his staff, and for Cobb’s failing to maintain an arms-length objective relationship with former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe.

      That meeting was attended by Cobb, his inspector general office staffers, and the current NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

      After the meeting, Morrell and Wholley discovered that it had been video recorded, against what Morrell said was his expressed directive that the meeting not be recorded.

      Morrell gave copies of the recordings to Wholley, and he subsequently destroyed them by breaking the CDs in his hands and discarding them.

      Wholley said he believed that by destroying the recordings then, before they were filed away, they wouldn’t become records that would be subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for public viewing. “This was a closed meeting, specifically directed to not be recorded, and these DVDs were not [NASA] records at that time,” at least not legally, Wholley asserted.

      Therefore, “I personally made the decision to destroy them, and did so by breaking them into pieces and throwing them in the trash.” Wholley took umbrage at suggestions that he “destroyed the copies of the recordings in an attempt to destroy evidence of the substantive content of the meeting.” False allegations have been made, he said, “slipped under the door and over the transom.”

      But Miller noted at the hearing that such means of transmitting allegations are “exactly how whistle blowers provide information to oversight committees of Congress” such as Miller’s, “and to [inspectors general] acting independently as required by statute.”

      Sensenbrenner said he was “very concerned” that the recordings were destroyed and that copies made at various locations all were obliterated with no copies remaining, even though there was “full awareness that Congress was investigating this issue.”

      Miller Praises Griffin

      As for Griffin, Miller praised the space agency administrator, saying that after a political appointee such as O’Keefe, Griffin “was a breath of fresh air,” someone with a science background who took a keen interest in the NASA programs.

      “He’s a good guy,” Miller said. At worst, the lawmaker said, Griffin may have demonstrated “poor judgment” or he may have received “poor legal advice” before calling the meeting.

      “I like Michael Griffin,” Miller said, though perhaps the administrator “did not fully understand what an inspector general is supposed to do.” And that, Miller said, is to be an independent and critical reviewer of agency programs and functions, not to be an apologist for the agency. Miller said that Griffin may be called to a subcommittee hearing to provide his recollections of the meeting.

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