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.
Cobb, a 1986 graduate of George Washington University's law school, became NASA's inspector general on April 22, 2002, after working for a year as an ethics lawyer in the office of the White House General Counsel.
Under the Inspector General Act of 1978, the president appoints independent officials to monitor Cabinet departments and larger federal agencies through audits and investigations. Cobb is among four of 11 inspectors general appointed by Bush who previously worked in the White House, and one of nine with no audit experience.
The complaints against Cobb began to surface early last year, according to NASA research pilot Robert Rivers, when Nelson's office was contacted regarding allegations of retaliation against Rivers in a dispute over aircraft safety at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
In early 2003, Rivers had refused to fly Langley's modified Boeing 757 research jet, saying NASA management had not addressed safety concerns that he and other pilots had raised over the previous 18 months. He was reassigned and eventually grounded. On Feb. 22, 2005, Cobb notified Rivers he was closing the IG's investigation without taking action.
The Hampton Roads Daily Press detailed these events in an article last April. Nelson forwarded it to Michael D. Griffin, NASA's new administrator, suggesting in a letter that Cobb "may have downplayed" the case "and may even have been involved in a cover-up." Nelson also wrote that "on occasion" he had heard of "similar allegations regarding the NASA IG."
Griffin replied in July that his office had examined Cobb's report and had not found "any indication that the findings were unreasonable." Griffin's office declined to comment for this article.
Documents examined by The Post showed that throughout 2005, Nelson's office was receiving complaints against Cobb from employees and former employees of NASA. Some came from whistle-blowers such as Rivers, but the vast majority were sent in by current and former employees of the IG's office.
The Post was contacted by several of these individuals and saw many of the documents that eventually reached the Integrity Committee. Some complainants spoke on the record; others asked to remain anonymous, saying they feared retaliation.
Many described Cobb as abusive to subordinates and dismissive of their abilities. "He would cut people off, get up and leave during meetings," said Dan Samoviski, who retired in 2004 as deputy IG director for audits at NASA headquarters. "Personally, I just think he created a hostile work environment."
Dennis Coldren, the retired manager of space station and space shuttle audits, was one of several who described Cobb as a "bully," and several sources also said they believed Cobb was too friendly with then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. They said Cobb suppressed audits, stopped investigations and otherwise edited IG activities to avoid embarrassing the agency or its leadership.
O'Keefe, now chancellor of Louisiana State University, acknowledged that Cobb would brief him on his cases, but said he had an "arm's length" relationship with Cobb and described him as "extremely professional."
"At the beginning, I said, 'Look, there's two ways to do the IG role,' " O'Keefe recalled in a telephone interview. " 'There's the "gotcha" role, and I've done that. But you can also tell me about the problem as it's happening, so we can pay attention to it.' That was exceedingly helpful, and if that's interpreted as being too close, so be it. I think that's being constructive."
Boehlert said the Science Committee frequently sought and obtained Cobb's guidance regarding NASA's troubled financial management, and O'Keefe said Cobb was instrumental in getting the agency to improve audit procedures.
"We consciously dismissed an external audit firm, and Cobb ran the process to select the new group," O'Keefe recalled. "He was the one who [improved] the internal controls. If it weren't for him, it wouldn't have happened."
Besides the objections to Cobb's management style, the complainants accused him of suppressing or stopping a number of investigations and audits involving safety issues and the loss of considerable amounts of money.
One former member of the IG's staff described in documents a 2002 shuttle launch in which Air Force controllers at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station declared the range "red," ordering a shutdown, because the shuttle's backup command destruct system was not functioning.
The command destruct system is designed to stop the shuttle during initial liftoff by blowing off the orbiter's solid rocket boosters if spectators or bystanders are in danger. The maneuver can cause serious damage to the shuttle or even destroy it.
The controllers were overruled by the range commander -- an Air Force general -- and the launch took place, with NASA engineers unaware of the malfunction. The former IG staff member said in an interview that the Air Force passed the investigation to NASA's IG because it involved shuttle-related safety concerns, but that Cobb killed the probe in early 2005, saying, "Let the Air Force handle it."
In another safety investigation, Coldren said that just a few weeks before the February 2003 Columbia disaster, Cobb quashed efforts to inquire into the cancellation of funding to upgrade deteriorating gantries, launch pads and other shuttle infrastructure. "The shuttle program wanted it, somebody killed it, and I wanted to find out who it was," Coldren said. "Cobb said we were not entitled to that information."
In another complaint filed with the Integrity Committee, IG auditor Carroll Tom Hassell described how "a person in a South American country" over three days in late 2002 logged into the Marshall Space Flight Center's supposedly secure computer system, stole space shuttle data valued at $1.9 billion and shipped it to a third country. The complaint said Cobb's office refused to report the theft to the Commerce Department as an illegal transfer of intellectual property.
Although Hassell, who retired in 2003, and other IG complainants have left NASA, others have remained. Several employees, past and present, said they were marginalized for speaking out too loudly and too often. "My colleagues and I have been begging for work for quite a while," one source said in a letter to Nelson charging retaliation for excess zeal. "I don't have to leave the confines of the OIG offices to find fraud, waste and abuse."
Last month, an internal survey of NASA's 193 IG employees produced a stark assessment. To the proposition that "I am encouraged about the future prospects of the OIG," 45 percent of 101 respondents marked "disagree" or "strongly disagree," and 24 percent marked "agree" or "strongly agree." The rest said they were indifferent.