WASHINGTON — A former top Earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center pleaded Sept. 29 guilty in U.S. district court in Greenbelt, Md., to a felony conflict-of-interest charge for steering NASA contracts to his wife’s company, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein announced in a Sept. 29 statement.

Mark Schoeberl, a resident of Silver Spring, Md., was the chief scientist of Goddard’s Earth Sciences Division and lead project scientist for NASA’s Aura climate-observing satellite mission until he retired from the agency Sept. 17. As Aura project scientist, Shoeberl, 60, had the authority to initiate and direct funding budgeted for the project.

Although it is illegal for federal employees to make official decisions that directly affect their financial interest without disclosing it to the government, Schoeberl admitted in a plea agreement to arranging for NASA contracts to be directed to a business owned by his wife, a software and kiosk display manufacturer called Animated Earth.

Schoeberl’s 2007 financial disclosure form omitted any mention of his interest in the company, even though the company had generated over $50,000 in income from NASA that year and Animated Earth had been included in Schoeberl’s 2006 financial disclosure form, according to the U.S. attorney’s statement.

According to the plea agreement, in 2004,after encountering resistance to a proposal to appropriate $20,000 to Animated Earth, Schoeberl asked a colleague to approve the funding. In June 2009, Schoeberl directed financial personnel to initiate a $60,000 procurement of software to be purchased from Animated Earth and provided a sole-source justification document for the procurement. And in June 2009, Schoeberl asked a NASA colleague to speak with another colleague about awarding 2009 Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to Animated Earth.

Schoeberl faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced Dec. 1