Former NASA Chief of Staff Avoids Jail in Earmark Case

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WASHINGTON — Former NASA Chief of Staff Courtney Stadd, convicted in August of lying to U.S. government ethics officials and inappropriately steering agency funds to a consulting client, was sentenced Nov. 6 to three years probation and six months of home confinement, and fined $2,500.

The sentence was handed down by U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer before a courtroom packed with many of Stadd’s friends and aerospace industry colleagues.

Stadd had been facing up to 15 years in prison, but during the sentencing hearing the prosecutors asked for a one-year term and a $20,000 fine.

Stadd, 54, led former U.S. President George W. Bush’s NASA transition team in 2000 and stayed on to serve as NASA chief of staff and White House liaison. He left the agency in 2003 to start a consulting business representing aerospace clients. He returned to NASA in 2005 for two months as a special government employee to help NASA’s newly installed administrator, Mike Griffin, reorganize the agency.

According to prosecutors, Stadd in 2005 exerted his authority as a special government employee to ensure that $12 million of a $15 million Earth science applications earmark added by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to a NASA budget bill was spent in Mississippi, where one of his clients was located. The client, Mississippi State University, later received $9.6 million of the earmarked funds.

Prosecutors said that after leaving NASA, Stadd petitioned Mississippi State to raise his monthly consulting fee from $7,000 to $10,000, citing his efforts to secure the $9.6 million.

During the sentencing hearing before the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia, prosecuting attorney David Johnson said Stadd’s actions were emblematic of a culture of corruption in the upper echelons of government. Johnson said Stadd’s defense attempted to minimize the severity of his behavior, underscoring the need to “send a message to him and other potential offenders” in government service.

Stadd’s attorney, Dorrance Dickens, said his client had suffered enough, having lost his aerospace consulting business, his past and potential clients, even his pets. Dickens asked Collyer for the most lenient sentence possible.

“I don’t think the court wants to send as Draconian a message as the government is asking for,” he said. “This man’s been destroyed.”

At the hearing Stadd expressed profound regret for his situation, which he described as rife with irony and paradox.

“Given what I was told at the time, I truly did not perceive that I was breaking any laws,” Stadd said.

According to the government’s case, Stadd in 2005 met with NASA’s associate administrator for science at the time, Mary Cleave, to direct her to release $12 million of Cochran’s earmark to Mississippi rather than award it through a national competition.

“I think this is a closer case than corruption,” Collyer said. “The facts are the facts. The client sent an e-mail [to Stadd] and said, ‘We’re not going to get the money if Mary Cleave does what she plans to do.’”

Before handing down Stadd’s sentence, the judge also noted the “tons of letters” she had received in support of Stadd, including one from Griffin. Nevertheless, Collyer characterized Stadd’s intervention on behalf of Mississippi State as a serious offense. But she rejected the government’s request for a one-year prison term. “All in all, the real reason to impose a jail sentence would be to send a message to other government employees,” she said, adding that such a message could be conveyed to the federal contracting community without incarcerating Stadd.