Former NASA administrator reprimanded for use of agency personnel after departure

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s inspector general found that former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden continued to use the services of an employee to manage his activities for almost two years after leaving the agency.

The NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report June 11 summarizing an investigation into allegations that Bolden’s former executive assistant, or EA, continued to support Bolden after he left NASA in January 2017, including aiding Bolden’s consulting business.

“The OIG concluded that the EA inappropriately provided significant administrative assistance to Bolden to include managing his personal and business appointments, making travel arrangements, and coordinating special requests for almost 2 years,” the report stated. However, it found no grounds for legal or other action against either Bolden or the assistant, who is unnamed in the report.

According to the report, Bolden added a provision to the assistant’s employee performance plan just before he left office in January 2017, authorizing the assistant to provide administrative support for speeches and other events that would take place after he left office, but for which he committed to participating while still at NASA. That support was originally envisioned to last for six to eight months.

However, the OIG report found that work “displayed the hallmarks of mission creep and gradually expanded beyond its original scope.” That included supporting Bolden not just for speaking engagements arranged prior to his departure from the agency, but paid appearances long after he left NASA and other services. Through that assistant, Bolden sought support elsewhere from NASA, from videos for his speeches to IT support for his smartphone.

The assistant was able to keep up this level of support for nearly two years in part because of what the OIG called a “lack of engaged supervision” amid turnover in agency leadership. Both Robert Lightfoot, who became acting administrator when Bolden departed in early 2017, and Jim Bridenstine, who took over as administrator in April 2018, had their own executive assistants, and thus the assistant aiding Bolden “appears to have had little direct supervision” during that time.

In early 2018, the assistant met with NASA’s ethics counsel, who discussed “concerns that she was providing an inappropriate amount of support to Bolden.” The assistant then reduced her support for Bolden, but continued to assist him at a lower level through late 2018.

Bolden, in an interview with the OIG, initially denied receiving support from his executive assistant after leaving the agency, but after shown evidence, such as email correspondence, acknowledged that he received that support “for more than merely NASA or government-related events” and that asking for that support was “my error in judgment.”

He also told investigators that “one of his biggest disappointments after leaving NASA was how little support he received,” believing that other former government officials received administrative support long after leaving office.

The OIG decided not to pursue legal or other action against either Bolden or the assistant, who retired from NASA in early 2019 and went to work for Bolden. The report noted that, had the assistant not retired, the OIG would have recommended “administrative discipline for her misconduct.”

“We conclude that Bolden should have exercised better judgment to ensure that his requests did not run afoul of the government’s ethical standards,” the report concluded. “In hindsight, Bolden admitted he should have used better judgment.”

While Bolden offered to reimburse NASA for the expenses incurred by the assistant’s support for him, the OIG weighed that against the services Bolden provided to NASA after his resignation, such as speeches in support for the agency for which he received no compensation. “Given that Bolden’s speaking fee was as high as $20,000 per speech during this time, the value of the services he provided to NASA was likely greater than the value of the administrative services Bolden received from the EA and other NASA employees,” the report concluded (emphasis in original.)

The report did recommend that NASA develop guidance for what kind of support NASA personnel can provide to administrators or other high-ranking officials after leaving the agency, and that guidance be briefed to those officials before their departure.