Prepared Statement by Sen. Bill Nelson - Hearing: Oversight Review of the Investigation of the NASA Inspector General


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Good afternoon and welcome to this hearing on the alleged misconduct by the NASA Inspector General, with a special welcome to our colleagues from the House Science Committee and its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations: Chairmen Gordon and Miller, and Ranking Member Sensenbrenner, thank you for being with us today. In April we received the results of the Integrity Committee's investigation of NASA's Inspector General, Robert Cobb. That independent panel found that Mr. Cobb had abused his office and failed to maintain the appropriate appearance of independence from the agency he is charged with monitoring. Based on the conclusions of the Integrity Committee, I joined Chairmen Gordon and Miller in calling on President Bush to remove Mr. Cobb from office. My position has not changed. However, some of the conduct described in the Integrity Committee's report is so disturbing that it warrants additional investigation.

I am particularly concerned with several specific instances of Mr. Cobb's misconduct:

1. In 2002, foreign computer hackers gained access to sensitive information on a NASA computer, including NASA's most advanced rocket engine designs. In such situations, federal export control laws require notification to the State Department, but Mr. Cobb ignored the advice of his staff and repeatedly blocked attempts to notify the State Department for fear that disclosure would be embarrassing to NASA.

2.In December 2004 and again in June 2005, Mr. Cobb delayed execution of search warrants in criminal investigations after those warrants had been sworn by an assistant U.S. attorney and signed by a federal judge.

3. In June 2002, the space shuttle Endeavour was launched with one of two required range safety systems inoperative. Despite the critical safety implications for NASA and the public, Mr. Cobb blocked a NASA OIG investigation, deferring instead to the Air Force, even when it became clear that the Air Force was not thoroughly investigating the matter.

NASA is unique among federal agencies. Its mission is to expand the boundaries of exploration, push the limits of technology, and broaden our understanding of our own planet and the universe. All of these activities carry risks - in many cases risks that can jeopardize the lives of NASA employees, astronauts, and the public, along with billions of dollars worth of national assets. After each of NASA's two major accidents in the past quarter century - Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 - investigators determined that a key contributing factor was a failure to ask questions and a culture that discouraged employees from raising safety concerns.

With this history in mind, it is particularly important for NASA employees to know that concerns about safety, waste, fraud, and abuse can be reported to a trustworthy inspector general, and have full confidence that the IG will pursue each case thoroughly, professionally, and independently.

Under Mr. Cobb's leadership, the Office of Inspector General at NASA has become dysfunctional. Fear and mistrust permeate the office. More than half of the experienced professionals in the office have left since Mr. Cobb's arrival. The boundaries between the IG and the agency's management have been trampled. The evidence shows us that these are not isolated incidents, but a pattern of misconduct that continues even today. A current senior-level employee in the OIG compared working for Mr. Cobb to being in an abusive relationship. As recently as April 10, OIG employees raised new concerns about Mr. Cobb's independence from NASA management, and the NASA general counsel destroyed government records in a bungled attempt at damage control related to the Cobb investigation.

Congress depends on inspectors general as the first line of oversight at government agencies. Without an effective inspector general at NASA, we have no choice but to increase the frequency and intensity of our own oversight activities. With each new revelation, I am more convinced that the current dysfunction in the NASA OIG is unrecoverable under the current leadership. I am hopeful that the information learned today will be helpful in reconstituting an effective OIG at NASA after Mr. Cobb's departure.

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