New Assignment for NASA Chief's Assistant Stirs Accusations of Favoritism
By Stephen Barr
Monday, May 24, 2004; Page B02
A political appointee who worked for Sean O'Keefe, the head of NASA, has been given a new federal job in Syracuse, N.Y., to help develop a "lessons learned" study of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The appointee, Retha Whewell, previously worked as executive assistant to O'Keefe. In that job, she served as a confidential aide and gatekeeper for the NASA administrator, making sure he had the information necessary to hold meetings and make decisions.
O'Keefe used his authority to transfer Whewell to her new job without posting a notice or advertising it. She was the only person considered for the job, said Glenn Mahone, a spokesman for O'Keefe.
In her new position, Whewell will collect and analyze documents on the Hubble telescope and serve as liaison to a Syracuse University professor writing a study of Hubble, Mahone said.
"Senior managers at NASA saw a need to capture lessons learned, make them available to others and integrate them into NASA's . . . robust training program," Mahone said. Whewell will serve as NASA's coordinator for the study and ensure that it becomes a part of agency training programs, Mahone said.
Whewell's reassignment, however, has prompted criticism inside NASA by people who say she got special treatment from O'Keefe that he would not give other agency employees. The critics, who spoke on condition that they not be identified because of fear of retribution, said Whewell's new job was handled by the agency's top personnel officials rather than being submitted for normal processing.
Mahone said Whewell's shift to the position was "totally according to the rules." He said O'Keefe's schedule did not permit time for an interview on the reassignment.
Whewell remains assigned to O'Keefe's office in Washington and will work as a telecommuter from Syracuse. NASA does not plan for her to travel, and she does not have a budget for research but has a NASA laptop computer and cell phone, Mahone said. She retains her salary and benefits as a General Schedule 13 employee, he said.
Whewell worked for O'Keefe when he taught at Syracuse University, before joining the Bush administration in 2001. In Washington, she worked for O'Keefe at the Office of Management and Budget and then at NASA.
She grew up in Upstate New York and is expecting a baby. Her husband's family lives in the Syracuse area.
Mahone said that Syracuse University and NASA work together in about 15 research areas and that Whewell is familiar with the university's staff and operations. For Whewell's assignment, "it is not necessary to know the university, but it does help in her role as liaison for the study," Mahone said.
The special hiring program O'Keefe used to convert Whewell to her new job, called NASA Excepted Positions, does not require competition. Congress authorized the program to allow NASA to bring in outside experts who could not be recruited under regular civil service rules, which typically involve long waits for job applicants and include safeguards to discourage favoritism in government hiring.
Mahone said NASA has 144 employees who have been hired under the program. People holding excepted positions may work for NASA only for a limited time. (Whewell's appointment is not to exceed 13 months.) Mahone said the special hires come from an array of fields. Twenty-two work in engineering, physical and life sciences; 43 in technology and computer security; and 79 are in program management and general administration, the category that covers Whewell.
Whewell called it "unfortunate" that her reassignment is being questioned inside the agency. "This is a wonderful opportunity, and NASA is a wonderful agency. I would do anything to better what we are doing. I can understand there are sensitivities."
Asked how she got her new job, Whewell said she had planned to leave NASA, but "this wonderful case study project came up, and it kind of fit."
She said she is eager to help compile a study of the Hubble telescope, which she called "a fascinating story." Much of NASA's work, Whewell said, is caught up in "great public policy debates, and we need to pull them together in a case study so we can learn from them."
Told that some agency officials contended that O'Keefe had overreached to help a friend, Whewell said, "Mr. O'Keefe's integrity should not be questioned at all."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company