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WASHINGTON - NASA's top watchdog routinely tipped off department officials to internal investigations and quashed a report related to the Columbia shuttle explosion to avoid embarrassing the agency, investigators say.
A report by the Integrity Committee, a government board that investigates inspectors general, found that Robert Cobb "created an appearance of a lack of independence," and it questioned whether NASA would do enough to reprimand him.
NASA administrator Michael Griffin has proposed sending Cobb to leadership training and requiring that he meet regularly with department officials on how to improve, but that is not enough, said Integrity Committee Chairman James Burrus.
"All members of the committee believe that disciplinary action, up to and including removal, could be appropriate," he said in a previously unreleased report that also accused Cobb of abusing authority to create an "abusive work environment."
NASA IG under investigation
Posted: Fri, Feb 3, 2006, 6:07 AM ET (1107 GMT)
A watchdog agency is investigating allegations that NASA's inspector general has not properly investigated safety violations and claims of retribution against space agency employees. The Washington Post reported on its front page Friday that the Integrity Committee of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency has started an investigation of Robert Cobb, who has been NASA's inspector general since 2002. Complaints about Cobb started last year, according to the Post, from employees who thought that he terminated or suppressed investigations into safety violations in agency programs. Former IG employees also claimed that Cobb was "abusive" and appeared to have too close of a relationship with then-administrator Sean O'Keefe.
Written complaints and supporting documents from at least 16 people have been given to investigators. They allege that Cobb, appointed by President Bush in 2002, suppressed investigations of wrongdoing within NASA, and abused and penalized his own investigators when they persisted in raising concerns.
The complaints are being reviewed by the Integrity Committee of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency. The complaints describe efforts by Cobb to shut down or ignore investigations on issues such as a malfunctioning self-destruct procedure during a space shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center, and the theft of an estimated $1.9 billion worth of data on rocket engines from NASA computers.
The letter — signed by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C. — quoted the report as saying that "disciplinary action, up to and including removal, could be appropriate." Nelson and Miller head legislative panels that conduct oversight over the nation's space agency.
worked as an ethics lawyer in the White House general counsel's office, was named NASA's inspector general in 2002 by the president.
The perception that Cobb lacked independence was set in motion during Mr. Cobb's hiring process.
Shortly after he moved from the Office of Management and Budget to NASA,
Sean O'Keefe, NASA's former administrator,
decided that he didn't like the previous NASA inspector general.
He went to the White House and demanded a new one... What is clear is from the sworn testimony provided ... by Mr. Cobb
and by Courtney Stadd, who was then Mr. O'Keefe's chief of staff,
is that Mr. O'Keefe personally chose his new inspector general and established a system in which Mr. Cobb was part of Mr. O'Keefe's team and not the independent inspector general required by law...
Mr. Stadd stated, however, that he thought it was "unusual" that Mr. O'Keefe had a say in who the next NASA IG would be.
One such investigation concerned the theft of approximately $1.9 billion-worth of International Traffic in Arms Regulations data.
This information, controlled by NASA, was illegally accessed by hackers and transmitted to locations in France.
According to the PCIE (President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency) investigation,
Mr. Cobb dismissed worries over the theft of this data because, in his view, the data wasn't "stolen,"
since NASA was still technically in possession of the accessed information.