Complaints Heard About NASA Inspector General

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

Former top associates of embattled NASA Inspector General Robert "Moose" Cobb accused him in an unusual House-Senate congressional inquiry yesterday of being abusive, vulgar, unprofessional and seemingly beholden to top management of the agency he oversees.

Cobb gave little ground, however, and made clear that he believes those complaints and the criticisms voiced by two probes into his actions are unfair and their conclusions misguided.

He said that he is proud of his five-year stewardship of the office and that NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin fully supports him. He also said an independent ethics committee investigation -- which concluded earlier this year that Cobb should be punished or dismissed -- was "a complete and de facto exoneration of me."

The report of the Integrity Committee, made up of three inspectors general, a top FBI official and other senior ethics officers, said that Cobb had abused his authority by mistreating his staff. It also found that he had created the appearance of a lack of independence by lunching, drinking and golfing with top NASA officials. The committee, which was established by the executive branch, did not find substance to charges that Cobb had improperly overlooked safety complaints by whistle-blowers.

Cobb said the Integrity Committee's "criticisms are not based on facts or law and are wrong."

Inspectors general are appointed to serve as watchdogs for major federal agencies.

The often highly charged testimony featured a long series of questions and answers between Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Cobb about allegations that he improperly intervened in the serving of search warrants and did not investigate several incidents that could have embarrassed NASA and its leadership. On several occasions, Nelson told Cobb, "This is where you get into trouble."

Nelson's questions and comments reflected his feeling that Cobb should resign, but the inspector general vigorously disputed the premise of many of the questions and said nobody had found fault with the work done by his office.

The 3 1/2 -hour hearing ended with a visibly frustrated Nelson citing 24 formal complaints against Cobb, 79 specific allegations and the findings of "abuse of authority" made by another inspector general's office, which were endorsed by the federal Integrity Committee.

"You have asserted those people are all wrong and you are all right," Nelson said.

The senator added that Congress will have to weigh whether Cobb should continue in his position and that "it's a judgment you will have to live with."

Several former officials who worked under Cobb gave stark testimony about working conditions in the office. One, former deputy assistant inspector general Debra Herzog, said she was once berated by Cobb because of a single word in a letter.

"In an ensuing monologue, loudly peppered with profanities, Mr. Cobb insulted and ridiculed me," she said. "After the meeting, I told Mr. Cobb one on one that I did not expect my superior to use profanity, it was unacceptable behavior, and I would not tolerate profanity. Mr. Cobb listened and gave me no indication if he agreed or disagreed. In the months to come, I regularly observed or heard of Mr. Cobb using profanity to humiliate and demean employees."

Cobb acknowledged using abusive language "four or five times." He said some of those outbursts were the result of subordinates questioning his conclusions or judgment.

Democrats on the Senate and House committees that oversee NASA have called on Cobb to resign. The two Republicans on the joint committee -- Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) and Rep. Tom Feeney (Fla.) -- said yesterday that they are reserving judgment.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement he is "alarmed" by the evidence uncovered by the federal ethics investigation, which was conducted by staff members in the Housing and Urban Development inspector general's office.

"According to the evidence, he has used this important position to interfere in the activities conducted by the investigative and audit divisions within his office for reasons that appear, at the very least, improper," Grassley said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company