Consider the following question: What is the minimum qualification one must have to become the top attorney at a high-profile U.S. federal agency?
If the agency is NASA and you answered “basic knowledge of relevant law
” – or even just the common sense to consult the person on your staff who has that knowledge –
would be wrong.
is no other conclusion to draw after NASA General Counsel Michael Wholley essentially pleaded ignorance when pressed by the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee about why he personally destroyed video recordings of an April 10 teleconference between NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and employees
of the agency’s Office of the Inspector General
. The meeting was held to discuss actions Mr. Griffin was taking to alleviate concerns, detailed in a r
eport by the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency, that NASA Inspector General Robert Cobb was abusive to subordinates and too cozy with the senior agency officials he might be called upon to investigate.
The meeting was recorded by NASA public affairs staff, apparently against the instructions of Paul Morrell, Mr. Griffin’s chief of staff. Mr. Morrell subsequently rounded up the five DVDs on which the meeting was recorded and handed them over to Mr. Wholley, who by his own admission destroyed them after consulting federal law and judging them not to be part of the official record.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (Wis.), the ranking Republican on the investigations and oversight subcommittee and an attorney, offered Mr. Wholley a legal refresher during a May 24 hearing. “I think it is very clear the tape was a public record,” said the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a famously formidable cross-examiner. “It is also a crime to destroy records.”
In his defense, Mr. Wholley said: “There was no intention on my part to destroy evidence. What I did, I did in good faith. If it was a mistake that I made on the law, it’s probably not the first one I ever made, nor will it, unfortunately, be the last.”
Amazingly, Mr. Wholley – who professed to being less than thoroughly versed in public records law – said he did not seek out the relevant expertise on his 35-person staff at NASA
headquarters before destroying the DVDs.
Even if one takes Mr. Wholley at his word that he was not trying to cover up anything Mr. Griffin or anyone else said at the meeting, his actions demonstrate, at best, astoundingly poor judgment – not exactly what one looks for in a NASA general counsel. In light of this, the White House needs to be asking whether Mr. Wholley is the best person to provide legal advice to NASA.