This report summarizes a NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation into allegations that NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. inappropriately consulted with Marathon Oil Corporation (Marathon), a company in which he has a significant financial interest, while he was considering NASA's involvement with an alternative fuel development project. The project, known as the Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae or OMEGA, seeks to produce fuel through controlled offshore reactions of wastewater and algae. Complaints received by the OIG claimed that Bolden engaged in a conflict of interest by consulting with Marathon. The allegations against Bolden became public on June 20, 2010, when an article appeared in The Orlando Sentinel.1
On April 30, 2010, Bolden spoke by telephone with a senior Marathon official for approximately 10-15 minutes seeking her technical perspective on the viability of algae-based fuels. At the time of his call, Bolden was considering a proposed memorandum of understanding (MOU) between NASA and the Department of the Navy (Navy) relating to the OMEGA project. Also at that time, Bolden owned between $500,000 and $1 million in Marathon stock and had served on Marathon's Board of Directors for the 6 years immediately prior to his becoming NASA Administrator.
During the course of our investigation, we interviewed 15 NASA employees, including Administrator Bolden, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, Ames Research Center Director Simon "Pete" Worden, Aeronautics Research Mission Director Jaiwon Shin, OMEGA's lead scientist Jonathan Trent, and General Counsel Michael Wholley, as well as officials from Marathon, the Navy, and the White House Counsel's Office. We also reviewed hundreds of e-mails and related documents from NASA and Marathon and consulted with officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice, and the Office of Government Ethics.
In sum, we found no evidence that Bolden or Marathon received a present or promised financial benefit as a result of Bolden's call. We also found that the information Bolden received from Marathon did not cause him to withhold funding to the OMEGA project or to direct that the proposed MOU with the Navy be abandoned.
We concluded that Bolden's contact with Marathon regarding OMEGA did not violate federal laws or regulations pertaining to conflicts of interest. However, we found that the contact was not consistent with the Ethics Pledge he, as an Administration appointee, had signed, and that it raised concerns about an appearance of a conflict of interest involving the NASA Administrator and a large oil company to which he had financial ties.
When interviewed by the OIG about this matter, Bolden readily acknowledged that he had erred in contacting Marathon. Bolden said he has since recused himself from issues involving OMEGA and has received supplemental training regarding his ethical responsibilities.
1 Robert Block and Mark K. Matthews, The Orlando Sentinel, June 20, 2010, "NASA Boss Investigated for Possible Conflict of Interest on Biofuel Project."