Key Lawmakers Call For Removal of NASA IG


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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two members of Congress, in a joint letter today, called for President Bush to fire the inspector general of NASA based on findings he abused his office.

The two lawmakers – U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Brad Miller - head legislative panels that have direct or partial oversight over the nation’s space agency. 

Their request came in the wake of an investigation into allegations that the inspector general, Robert W. Cobb, abused his authority, engaged in apparent conflicts of interest and failed to act even when confronted with the loss of NASA material posing a possible national security problem.

“After reviewing the report and the voluminous supporting documentation, it is our position that Mr. Cobb must be removed for the good of NASA and the nation, and we are requesting that you do so,” Nelson and Miller wrote to Bush today.

It was Nelson who initiated the investigation of Cobb in 2005, when he received nearly two dozen complaints from current or former NASA employees and forwarded them to the president’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency.  That group oversees the inspectors general at federal agencies.

And it was the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, under Miller, that accelerated the council’s probe by threatening to hold its own investigation and issue subpoenas last fall.

After the integrity committee’s investigation was completed recently, NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin last month assigned Cobb an executive coach to bolster his management skills.  But Cobb's final fate rests with Bush.

So far, a key member of the integrity council says in a March 20 letter to the full panel that Cobb’s punishment should be harsh - up to and including removal.  But the council has yet to issue a formal recommendation to the president's Office of Management and Budget.

Nelson has not disclosed the nature of the complaints against Cobb.  But several newspapers, including The Washington Post, Orlando Sentinel and the Hampton Road Daily Press in Virginia, previously have reported on some of them.

Among other things, investigators found that Cobb lunched, played golf with and traveled with former NASA chief and Bush appointee Sean O’Keefe – raising questions about his independence.

Following is the Miller-Nelson letter to Bush.

 


April 2, 2007

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C.  20500

Dear President Bush:

Late last week, the undersigned were provided with the report of the Integrity Committee (IC) of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency (PCIE) relating to their investigation of Robert Cobb, the inspector general of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  The Integrity Committee found that Mr. Cobb had abused his authority by creating a hostile and abusive work environment and had taken actions that gave the appearance of a lack of independence from the NASA management that violated the Quality Standards for Federal Office of Inspector General that were established by the PCIE.

The Integrity Committee took the unprecedented step of stating that,  "All members of the committee further believed that disciplinary action up to and including removal, could be appropriate."  (emphasis added) [1]

After reviewing the report and the voluminous supporting documentation, it is our position that Mr. Cobb must be removed for the good of NASA and the nation, and we are requesting that you do so. The Record of Investigation demonstrated that the office environment had seriously deteriorated and was affecting the staff's ability to conduct audits and investigations for fear of verbal abuse and ridicule.  Experienced, skilled employees appear to have become more interested in avoiding Mr. Cobb's anger than in doing credible work. The IC viewed this conduct as "inconsistent with the high standards of conduct expected of senior executives."  It was more than an "aggressive management style or a way of expressing dissatisfaction with employee performance," but "arbitrary and capricious conduct, which affected the rights of senior employees to a non-hostile and abusive workplace."[2]  Given that the Office of the NASA Inspector General has important roles in assuring the safety of the Space Shuttle program and other high-risk national assets, this is an untenable situation that cannot be allowed to continue.

The IC also found that numerous incidents that, as a group, were sufficient to create an "appearance" problem, and noted that it was the "responsibility of the IG to consider how the combined affect [sic] of his interaction with the Agency head might cloud or be perceived to cloud his independence."  While the Quality Standards do not have the status of law, rule or regulation, "the IC views these standards as a benchmark for IG performance and applicable to all IGs through EO 12805, Integrity and Efficiency in Federal Programs."[3]

During the IC's investigation, Mr. Cobb was allowed to respond to each allegation.  He did not deny any of them, but gave excuses for each of them.  In response to the allegations of creating a hostile work environment by using profanity, threats and intimidation against his staff, he said he was "passionate when people are insubordinate to my face."  In his deposition, Mr. Cobb – who had no auditing nor investigative experience prior to assuming his position -- frequently described his staff as producing "deplorable and relatively meaningless" work that he personally had to rewrite and as having faulty understanding of the relevant laws.  He determined that "anyone could do audits" and replaced experienced auditors with technical people who could not audit according to the required government standards.  These "reorganizations" seriously delayed the production of audits.

Additionally, without both an appearance of and actual independence, neither his staff nor NASA employees will be able to trust Mr. Cobb.  Trust is an essential element for any IG because he will not receive information if the perception is that he cannot be trusted.  Mr. Cobb is clearly outside of the acceptable norms for this critically important job.  The work done by the Justice Department's inspector general and the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction demonstrate the need for strong inspectors general who can be trusted as credible critics – not apologists – for the agencies they oversee.  In contrast, he situation in the NASA IG office deteriorated so far that audits are being delayed and rewritten to the point at which they are meaningless or not timely.  Mr. Cobb personally rewrote audits; in one case a review took 14 months and 24 revisions and resulted in a 1-1/4 page report.  Reports written with recommendations ended up with no recommendations. Sometimes the audit staff just gave up.

Cobb deliberately replaced experienced auditors with "technical" people because he believed the auditors couldn't communicate.  The problem was that the technical people couldn't audit to government standards, and their work had to be redone - which caused additional delays.  His view was that "you don't need auditors to do audits," and he took steps to force out senior GS-15 auditors with a buy-out.  The result has been that the technical people he brought in are now working under auditors so that they can produce acceptable audits.

Cobb stated to the investigators that "almost every audit and administrative report that came into my office throughout the first couple of years, they were all substantially revised and amended to be consistent with the law."  As a result, reports were delayed or significantly revised based on Cobb's personal view of the law.  There is no evidence that he was correct.

The reports from the Inspector General have often been important to the work of our Committees in its oversight of NASA.  The evidence presented in the IC report demonstrates that the Committees are not receiving useful assistance from one of its primary tools.

Given the compelling weight of the evidence compiled by the Integrity Committee, we believe that the NASA inspector general can no longer be effective in his office and should be immediately replaced.

Your prompt attention to this letter is greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

  SENATOR BILL NELSON
Chairman

REPRESENTATIVE   BRAD MILLER
Chairman Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, House Committee on Science and Technology

[1] Letter dated March 20, 2007, from James H. Burrus, Jr., IC Chair, to Clay Johnson III.

[2]."January 22, 2007 Report of the Integrity Committee to Clay Johnson III, Chairman, PCIE, p. 2.

[3] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

Contact:
Dan McLaughlin ( Nelson )
202-224-1679
Luann Canipe ( Miller )
202-226-8162

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