WASHINGTON — An April 10 video teleconference NASA Administrator Mike Griffin conducted for 200 or so people across the country who work for the U.S. space agency’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has landed him in hot water with the chairman of the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee.
NASA spokesman David Mould said there was nothing inappropriate about the meeting, which Griffin held to fulfill a written pledge to the head of the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency to meet with NASA Inspector General Robert Cobb’s staff to discuss the actions that had been taken in response to an internal investigation that found Cobb had been verbally abusive to employees and too chummy with top NASA officials.
But Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), the chairman of the investigative subcommittee, disagrees. He wrote Griffin April 25 to say he was troubled by what he has heard about the meeting and dismayed to learn that copies of a routine video recording of the meeting were rounded up at the direction of Griffin’s chief of staff, Paul Morrell, and destroyed at the direction of his general counsel, Michael Wholley.
“We have been told that your presentation to OIG staff was no simple pep talk,” Miller wrote. “Allegations have come to us that you told OIG staff what you thought was worthwhile work and what was not. If true, such a directive from the head of an agency to its inspector general would be unprecedented and highly improper.”
Mould, who said he was not at the April meeting but has spoken to Griffin and others about it, said Griffin was asked “by an employee what work the OIG did that was most beneficial to him.”
Griffin, Mould said, “very strongly prefaced his answer by stressing the OIG is independent and that he could not and did not want to direct their work. He told them it was up to them to decide what to investigate and how to investigate it and in the spirit of independence he didn’t want to say anything to them about that.”
After those caveats, Mould said, Griffin “identified waste, fraud and abuse as useful areas of focus in contrast to assessments of program management decision-making, for instance, which was more of a matter of opinion and less prone to factual assessment.”
NASA does not dispute recordings were made and then disposed of at Wholley’s discretion.
Mould said recording is fairly routine, mainly to permit later viewings by invitees that might have missed the meeting. But in this case, he said, Morrell requested the meeting not be recorded to encourage employees to speak candidly. NASA video services personnel, however, apparently did not get the message.
“Somebody just forgot to push the button that said ‘do not record it’,” Mould said.
Participants in the video teleconference, including Griffin, were informed by a message on their monitors that the meeting was being recorded, Mould said.
After the meeting, according to Mould, Morrell rounded up the recordings and took them to Wholley who determined it was not an official NASA record and disposed of it.
“From the legal standpoint, you retain official records and if they are not official records there is no reason to retain them,” Mould said.
Miller, according to his April 25 letter, was not satisfied by NASA’s explanations.
“It is difficult for us to fathom why other all-hands videocasts are routinely taped, but somehow your presentation needed special authorization,” Miller wrote. “Even if the taping had been unauthorized — whatever that means in this context — to then destroy the records of that session probably violates government records statutes that attach to NASA and all government agencies.”
Miller said the destruction of the tapes is especially troubling given that Congress has not finished looking into the handing of the allegations against Cobb.
“[Y]our counsel and you yourself must be aware of the ongoing oversight work of the Congress in the matter of Mr. Cobb’s case. That interest assuredly extends to your own role as well as that of your General Counsel,” Miller wrote. “To destroy the records of what you said to the NASA OIG staff … appears on its face to be nothing less than the destruction of evidence.”
A subcommittee spokeswoman would not say how Miller learned about the meeting and its content. “We’re an investigative subcommittee,” said spokeswoman Alisha Prather. “We don’t divulge our sources.”