With all eyes in the civil space community focused on who will be the next NASA administrator, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a reminder of another piece of unfinished NASA business: the agency’s inspector general, Robert “Moose” Cobb.
Mr. Cobb, many will recall, came under fire back in 2007 for allegedly being abusive toward subordinates and for having been too close to senior NASA officials – including former administrator Sean O’Keefe – to exercise effective and objective oversight of the agency’s activities. These were the conclusions of the Integrity Committee of the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency, a White House panel that investigated complaints against Mr. Cobb.
The committee’s 1,000-page report, released by the White House after much congressional prodding, led to calls from Democrats in both the House and Senate for Mr. Cobb’s dismissal. U.S. President George W. Bush declined, and Mr. Cobb, who was appointed to the position in 2002, refused to resign. Mr. Griffin, meanwhile, made an ill-advised recommendation that Mr. Cobb be retained. James Burns, chairman of the Integrity Committee, disagreed with Mr. Griffin, saying in a letter to the chairman of the President’s Council on Integrity and Economic Efficiency, Clay Johnson, that the members of his panel believed “disciplinary action up to and including removal” of Mr. Cobb was warranted in the matter. Yet nothing happened.
Fast forward to 2009 and the release of the GAO’s performance appraisal of NASA’s Office of Inspector General under Mr. Cobb. The report said the office, which is supposed to uncover waste, fraud and mismanagement, generated a 36-cent return for each dollar invested, compared to a $9.49 average for other inspectors general. For the years 2003-2007, GAO auditors found, 88 percent of the savings generated by the NASA inspector general resulted from just two investigations, both of which were done in collaboration with inspectors general from other agencies. During that same period, turnover at NASA Office of Inspector General rose from 12 percent to 20 percent, the GAO found.
Mr. Cobb’s response to a draft of the GAO’s report was included in the final version. In it, he struck a tone of lawyerly defiance, saying, for example, that the draft report was based on historical data and failed to include documents from the President’s Council on Integrity and Economic Efficiency indicating the matter would not be further pursued. “In sum, the draft report misleads the reader through selective inclusion and exclusion of evidence to suggest that a closed matter is still open, a conclusion that is demonstrably wrong,” Mr. Cobb wrote.
Apparently, in Mr. Cobb’s opinion, the Integrity Committee’s view that disciplinary action was appropriate doesn’t count.
If Mr. Cobb was unmoved by the GAO’s findings, two of the three lawmakers who requested the report, both Democrats, felt differently and renewed calls for his dismissal.
Inspectors general differ from other political appointees in that they are not required to submit letters of resignation effective the date of the change of presidential administrations. This puts the onus on the incoming president to be proactive in dismissing an inspector general that he or she does not want in the job. President-elect BarackObama, once he settles into office, should take that action as swiftly as possible in this case, assuming Mr. Cobb still hasn’t gotten the message and departed on his own by then.