Cobb Defends His Record and Insists the Investigation Ignored Due Process

WASHINGTON — House and Senate Democrats renewed their call for NASA Inspector General Robert Cobb to resign, saying June 7 that they had no confidence in his ability to serve as a fair and impartial watchdog.

In a rare joint hearing, the leaders of NASA’s House and Senate oversight committees blasted Cobb for being too close to former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and other senior agency officials to properly fulfill his duties as the U.S. space agency’s internal overseer.

In response to his critics Cobb said the complaints against him are unjustified and that he has no intention of stepping down.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee, said that NASA’s Office of Inspector General has no credibility with Congress as long as Cobb remains at the helm.

“Congress depends on inspectors general as the first line of oversight at government agencies. That’s the law,” Nelson said. “Without an effective inspector general at NASA we have no choice but to increase the frequency and intensity of our own oversight activities. With each new revelation I am more convinced that the current dysfunction in the NASA [Office of Inspector General] is unrecoverable under the current leadership.”

Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight committee, was even more blunt.

“Mr. Cobb is now totally ineffective in his job and trusted by no one,” Miller said during the June 7 hearing. “You have two clients –

NASA and Congress … and it is apparent that Congress does not trust you.”

“Mr. Cobb, you must leave to protect what is left of the integrity of your office,” Miller said.

Miller said that Cobb, a former White House attorney who handled administration of the White House ethics program, was handpicked in 2002 by then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe as someone who would behave as a member of NASA’s management team, rather than as a properly independent watchdog.

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) picked up on that theme, telling Cobb that he was not chosen for the NASA job for his management skills or experience in conducting audits, investigations and oversight. “You were chosen to play ball with Sean O’Keefe.”

A White House-ordered investigation of complaints against Cobb found that the former White House counsel socialized with O’Keefe, playing golf, having lunch

and occasionally traveling with him.

Cobb told investigators that he saw nothing inappropriate about the time he spent with O’Keefe and other senior NASA officials, saying he would gladly accept an invitation from NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to join him on the golf course.

Griffin has said he would not golf with Cobb.

“[Cobb] wants the same kind of relationship with Mr. Griffin that he had with Mr. O’Keefe,” Miller said. “Mr. Griffin, to his credit, apparently does not.”

Still, Griffin got into hot water with Miller’s subcommittee last month for holding an all-hands video-teleconference with the 200 people who work in the NASA Office of Inspector General across the country. During the April 10 meeting, Griffin defended Cobb and said in response to a question that waste, fraud and abuse investigations were more useful to him than program audits. Video recordings of the meeting were personally destroyed by Griffin’s general counsel, Mike Wholley, because Wholley did not want them to become government records available to Congress or the public.

The two Republicans at the hearing –

Rep. Tom Feeney (Fla.) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) –

said they were reserving judgment on Cobb. Neither, however, stayed to hear him testify. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a written statement he was “alarmed” by the evidence uncovered by the ethics investigation. Grassley was to have testified at the hearing but, Nelson said, he was called away for a meeting with Senate leadership.

The hearing followed a year-long investigation conducted under the auspices of the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency’s Integrity Committee that found no instance of Cobb acting illegally and was unable to substantiate most of the allegations against Cobb. However, the investigation –

led by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general office – cited examples of Cobb verbally abusing his staff and failing to maintain an appearance of independence from NASA management on at least two occasions.

One instance involved Cobb intervening to stop Texas law enforcement officials from issuing a bulletin on an unverified report that a ring had been stolen from the remains of astronaut Laurel Clark, who died when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry in February 2003. Cobb said his investigators determined that there was no ring on Clark’s remains, therefore it could not have been stolen. Cobb did not elaborate, but a NASA official familiar with the matter said Clark’s dismembered hand was so badly charred in the accident that if a ring had been removed by a member of the recovery team, it would have been evident to the NASA medical examiners.

The other incident involved a hacker’s theft of rocket engine designs from computers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in 2002. Investigators concluded that Cobb did not move with appropriate haste to report the data theft to the U.S. State Department, which had jurisdiction over technology export matters.

Cobb countered that he had no legal obligation to notify the State Department and that after learning from press reports about the theft, his office worked with the Defense Criminal Investigative Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and others to investigate the security breach.

“There was no action our office did not take that it should

have in connection with this activity,” Cobb said.

Nelson made clear he was not happy with Cobb’s handling of the theft, which resulted in NASA space shuttle main engine designs and other advanced rocketry data being temporarily posted to the Internet.

“There are sure folks on planet Earth that we don’t want to have these types of rocket designs . . . namely folks like North Korea and Iran,” Nelson said. “Four years after the incident the Department of Defense was finally asked to evaluate the national security implication of the compromised data. The request didn’t come from your office but from the HUD investigators who were investigating your conduct.”

Cobb defended his five-year tenure at NASA and repeatedly pointed out that the Integrity Committee found no evidence that he had acted illegally despite spending $640,000 on what he described as an open-ended investigation that invited anyone with an ax to grind to come forward and smear his reputation.

While Cobb acknowledged verbally abusing employees on several occasions, he said he never did anything to compromise the integrity or effectiveness of the NASA Office of the Inspector General as former employees allege.

“So your conclusion is that you should stay as the inspector general?” Nelson asked.

“My conclusion is that I should stand up against an investigation that disregards the Constitution and due process concepts that are built into it,” Cobb said. “And I believe that when our government operates in a way that is abusive that people should stand up against it.”

“And in your opinion, for you to remain as inspector general, that’s in the best interest of NASA and the American people?” Nelson followed up.

“Yes,” Cobb said.

Before Cobb approached the witness table to dispute the Integrity Committee’s findings, lawmakers heard from three former members of Cobb’s staff who testified that they left the

agency rather than continue working for a boss they found abusive, overly beholden to the concerns of NASA management, and either unfamiliar or unconcerned with some of the duties of an inspector general.

Debra Herzog, a former assistant U.S. attorney who joined NASA in 2004 as the deputy assistant inspector general for investigations, said Cobb twice interfered with the serving of search warrants that had been signed by a U.S. magistrate.

Herzog, now a senior attorney at the U.S. Postal Service’s office of inspector general, also testified that she once had been publicly berated by Cobb for “a single word” in a letter.

“In an ensuing monologue, loudly peppered with profanities, Mr. Cobb insulted and ridiculed me,” she said. “After the meeting, I told Mr. Cobb one-on-one that I did not expect my superior to use profanity, it was unacceptable behavior, and I would not tolerate profanity. Mr. Cobb listened and gave me no indication if he agreed or disagreed. In the months to come, I regularly observed or heard of Mr. Cobb using profanity to humiliate and demean employees.”

At the recommendation of NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who has said the Integrity Committee uncovered nothing that warranted Cobb’s removal from office, Cobb is receiving management training to address his outbursts.