NASA's Inspector General Probed

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006

An FBI-led watchdog agency has opened an investigation into multiple complaints accusing NASA Inspector General Robert W. Cobb of failing to investigate safety violations and retaliating against whistle-blowers. Most of the complaints were filed by current and former employees of his own office.

Written complaints and supporting documents from at least 16 people have been given to investigators. They allege that Cobb, appointed by President Bush in 2002, suppressed investigations of wrongdoing within NASA, and abused and penalized his own investigators when they persisted in raising concerns.

The complaints are being reviewed by the Integrity Committee of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency. The complaints describe efforts by Cobb to shut down or ignore investigations on issues such as a malfunctioning self-destruct procedure during a space shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center, and the theft of an estimated $1.9 billion worth of data on rocket engines from NASA computers.

In documents obtained by The Washington Post and in interviews, NASA employees and former employees said Cobb's actions had contributed to a lack of attention to safety problems at NASA.

The petitioners also said Cobb had disregarded the inspector general's mandate to root out "waste, fraud and abuse" and caused dozens of longtime NASA employees to leave the IG's 200-person office and seek investigative work elsewhere.

Cobb would not discuss his case, saying in a telephone interview only that he will "cooperate fully" with the investigation. "I am proud of, stand behind and am accountable for the work of the IG," he said. "The office has been particularly dedicated to ensuring an atmosphere where safety concerns are fully addressed."

In an e-mail sent to his staff on Tuesday, Cobb said the Integrity Committee is investigating allegations "that I 'failed to investigate violations of safety concerns' " and retaliation against whistle-blowers. He urged employees to "cooperate fully" with the investigators.

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said his office "deals with the IG all the time. He has always been responsive to us, and we have never had any indication of a problem." Boehlert noted that the committee "wouldn't know anything" about the incidents under investigation, and said that "we will await the outcome of the investigation."

The Integrity Committee is charged with investigating serious misconduct by inspectors general or their senior staff. It began notifying individual petitioners in mid-December that it intended to undertake an "administrative review" of their complaints.

In addition, the office of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) gathered information from about 30 people during 2005, and on Dec. 14 forwarded documents from 16 to the Integrity Committee. On Jan. 9, the committee informed Nelson in a letter that his package was "one of the components of an administrative investigation."

The Integrity Committee is chaired by Chris Swecker, assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative division, and includes the head of the Office of Special Counsel, the director of the Office of Government Ethics and six sitting inspectors general.

The review is to be conducted by the inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. If the case merits further action, the committee could reexamine it or refer it to the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section or another law enforcement agency.

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