Lawmakers Urge Bush To Fire NASA Official

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

NASA's inspector general created a hostile and dysfunctional workplace with his "aggressive management style" and compromised his independence by appearing to be close to former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, two lawmakers said yesterday after reading an investigative report on his conduct.

In a letter to President Bush, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) said that the investigators who reviewed complaints against Robert W. Cobb unanimously "believed that disciplinary action up to and including removal could be appropriate."

The legislators urged Bush to fire Cobb immediately, saying that his role in ensuring the safety of the space shuttle and other NASA missions resulted in "an untenable situation that cannot be allowed to continue."

The White House had initially refused to provide Congress with the 1,500-page report on Cobb's conduct but ultimately agreed to let some members read it after the House Committee on Science and Technology's subcommittee on investigations and oversight threatened to issue a subpoena.

Cobb spent 15 months as an adviser on ethics and conflicts of interest to then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales before being appointed inspector general in 2002. He quickly became a target of criticism from NASA whistle-blowers and members of his own staff who complained that he had stifled investigations of serious safety concerns and that his temperamental behavior drove experienced auditors and investigators from the office.

Cobb declined to comment yesterday. He has said previously that he is proud of the work his office has done and that he would let the investigative process continue before publicly discussing the complaints. It is unclear whether the full report will be made public.

Under the Inspector General Act of 1978, the president appoints independent officials to monitor every Cabinet department and the larger federal agencies through audits and investigations.

In their letter, Nelson and Miller said they would not discuss the specific complaints against Cobb or the conclusions of the investigative group, the Integrity Committee of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency. That committee, which includes members of the FBI, the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Government Ethics and other inspectors general, is overseen by the Office of Management and Budget.

The investigation began after a NASA research pilot complained to Nelson's office that he had been asked to fly an unsafe aircraft at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., in 2003, and then had been reassigned and grounded for refusing. That complaint was sent to Cobb, whose office later notified the pilot that its inquiry was closed. No action had been taken.

Nelson's office pressed the case after a local newspaper further detailed the pilot's situation. The senator told new NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin, who took over from O'Keefe in 2005, that he had received two dozen other complaints from people who thought that Cobb was covering up possible wrongdoing.

The lawmakers did not cite any findings regarding safety or coverups, but said the report called Cobb's treatment of his staff "inconsistent with the high standard of conduct expected of senior executives."

In a statement, Nelson and Miller said investigators found that Cobb lunched, played golf and traveled with O'Keefe when he was head of NASA and that Cobb's dealings with O'Keefe led to a problem with the "appearance of independence."

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, said in a statement that "NASA is poorly served by an Inspector General who is not perceived as being completely independent. 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."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company