Cobb Probe

(Well there are different kinds of probes...)

An SLP reader e-mailed this weekend asking, "who's watching NASA's watchdog?" I had not blogged about the ongoing investigation of the NASA inspector general but as we read in an unsettling
report in the Washington Post last month -- and to answer the question -- apparently the FBI-led Integrity Committee of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency is.

I don't find much to report by way of an update (yet), but as Guy Gugliotta in the Post covered, the Committee is looking into complaints made by former and current employees within NASA's
Office of Inspector General (OIG) that NASA Inspector General Robert W. Cobb failed to investigate safety violations and penalized his own whistle-blowing inspectors.

(By the way, as Inspector General, Cobb is a member of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency.)

According to the Post, "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" and that "NASA employees and former employees said Cobb's actions had contributed to a lack of attention to safety problems at NASA."

The article also reports allegations that the IG "disregarded the inspector general's mandate to root out 'waste, fraud and abuse' and caused dozens of longtime NASA employees to leave the IG's 200-person office and seek investigative work elsewhere."

And yes,
Cobb is a lawyer and did previously serve as Associate Counsel to the President where "he handled the administration of the White House ethics program" and before that, among other positions, he worked at the United States Office of Government Ethics. Cobb was appointed by Pres. Bush and took office in April, 2002.

All of which moved me to take a look at the NASA OIG's most recent semiannual report to Congress (a document which is
required under the Inspector General Act of 1978 ) (Public Law 95-452), and scrutinize the sections on safety.
No indication of anything awry in the OIG's office.

(By the way, the OIG has its own
Legal Unit which, as indicated on the web page, "is not a component of the NASA General Counsel's Office.")

In his summary of the "serious management and performance challenges facing NASA" dated
Nov. 14, 2005 (this report is required pursuant to the Reports Consolidation Act of 2000), Cobb listed four "challenges":
  • continuing to correct the serious organizational and technical deficiencies that contributed to the Columbia accident in 2003
  • completing the International Space Station
  • transitioning from the Space Shuttle vehicle to the next-generation crew exploration vehicle (CEV)
  • ensuring that the integrated financial management system improves NASA's ability to accurately allocate costs to programs, efficiently provides reliable information to management, and supports compliance with the Chief Financial Officers Act.

    Nothing about an inspector general who could use a bit of inspecting himself.

    While we await developments, here's a GAO report on Handling of Allegations Against Senior OIG Officials (Oct. 1996). What a predicament.

    (By the way, Cobb may or may not also have run afoul of the
    Principles and Standards for Offices of Inspector General of the Association of Inspectors General, but never mind that.)

    Meanwhile, one of 16 whistleblowers, NASA ex-manager Gerry Brown told the the Daily Press, he
    wants his life back.

    Credit where its due, folks seem to work hard at the OIG; for example as OIG's Office of Investigations reports, during the 6-month period ending September 30, 2005, its work "led to $5,308,195 in recoveries" as well as "20 indictments or informations [and] 14 convictions, plea bargains or pretrial diversions."

    In the interim, if you'd like to join forces with NASA as a citizen watchdog, here's the agency's
    cyberhotline to submit a criminal, administrative or civil complaint involving a NASA center or program.

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