WASHINGTON — NASA’s acknowledgment that it intentionally destroyed copies of an April 10 video teleconference prompted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to call for the resignation of the agency’s top attorney, who destroyed the recordings.
The recordings in question had documented a video teleconference used by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to address 200 employees of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The subject of the teleconference was NASA Inspector General Robert Cobb, who has been accused of failing to do his job properly and for harsh and inappropriate treatment of some of his employees.
In a statement, Griffin called NASA General Counsel Mike Wholley’s decision to destroy the recordings a “mistake,” but said Wholley still has his “full confidence.”
“We regret the controversy surrounding the recording of my meeting with the Inspector General’s staff. In retrospect, it was a mistake to destroy the recordings once they had been made,” Griffin said in a statement issued in response to Nelson’s May 1 call for Wholley’s ouster.
Nelson also renewed his call for the White House to dismiss Cobb, saying that Wholley’s actions again call into question Cobb’s independence from senior NASA leadership.
“Even if Wholley’s motives were innocuous, his actions create serious appearance problems for the agency and distract from our common goal of building support for NASA’s mission,” Nelson said in his May 1 letter to Griffin.
Concerns about Griffin’s April 10 meeting with OIG staff and NASA’s subsequent handling of the recordings of that teleconference, which agency officials said were not supposed to be made in the first place, were first raised by Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), the chairman of the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight committee.
Miller wrote Griffin April 25 demanding an explanation of the agency’s actions. Wholley and other NASA officials went to Congress April 27 to discuss the matter.
According to Nelson’s May 1 letter, Wholley acknowledged during the April 27 meeting that he personally destroyed the recordings after determining they did not constitute official records under the Federal Records Act. “His stated reason for destroying the records,” according to Nelson, “was that he did not want them available to the public under a Freedom of Information Act request. He further stated that the recordings were not evidence of anything improper, but rather would have demonstrated that your contact with the staff of the OIG was entirely appropriate.”
Nelson also told Griffin he was troubled by NASA’s decision to second guess the findings of a White House committee that concluded Cobb had been abusive to his staff and too close to senior NASA leadership to be an effective watchdog. After performing his own evaluation of the allegations and evidence against Cobb, Wholley concluded that Cobb had done nothing that warranted his removal.
“There is nothing in the Integrity Committee’s procedures or the governing executive order providing for a separate evaluation of the Integrity Committee’s findings by the agency,” Nelson said. “To do so vitiates the work of the Integrity Committee, which had expended time and resources independently investigating the allegations, weighing the evidence and issuing their findings. Wholley’s actions raised the issue of conflict of interest, both for the reasons cited above, and by his office being named in some of the allegations against Mr. Cobb.”
“My concerns about the effectiveness of the NASA Inspector General and his relationship with senior NASA management are growing, and I am increasingly convinced that this situation is an unnecessary distraction from NASA’s real challenges,” Nelson continued. “It is apparent to me that there is either a lack of understanding or appreciation at NASA for the role of an independent inspector general.”
Griffin, in his statement, stood by his recommendation to keep Cobb on as inspector general.
“The Integrity Committee report was analyzed by an independent career civil servant in the NASA General Counsel’s office, and I reviewed that analysis as well as the Integrity Committee’s report,” Griffin said. “I believe my proposed actions were appropriate based on my own review.”