NASA scientist pleads guilty to directing contracts to wife’s firm

An award-winning NASA scientist has admitted to directing thousands of dollars in sole-source agency contracts to his wife's firm and failing to report the income on a financial disclosure form.

Mark Schoeberl, 60, of Silver Spring, Md., a senior manager and scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, pleaded guilty on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., to one count of felony conflict of interest.

Schoeberl, who has worked at NASA since the early 1980s, was charged last week after authorities completed an investigation run out of NASA inspector general's office.

"When government officials direct business to themselves or their family members, other people are deprived of a fair chance to compete," said U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. "It is illegal for any federal employee to make an official decision that directly affects their financial interest, unless they disclose that conflict of interest and get approval from the government."

According to the plea agreement, in mid-2004 Schoeberl began inquiring about ways to direct work to his wife Barbara's company, Animated Earth. According to the company's Web site, Animated Earth is a small business that develops and distributes Earth Today, an exhibit displaying near-real-time earth science data sets on a rotating globe.

At the time, Schoeberl was the chief scientist of Goddard's earth sciences division -- which conducts climate research -- and the project scientist for the Aura project, a NASA mission to study the Earth's ozone layer, air quality and climate.

Schoeberl was in a position to guide funds budgeted for the Aura mission. Prosecutors said he initially "encountered resistance" to a plan that would have directed a $20,000 appropriation to Animated Earth, but later convinced a colleague to approve the funding.

In May, Schoeberl admitted to preparing a document that justified Animated Earth as the only contractor eligible to bid on a new award for maintenance on kiosks that the company had previously installed on NASA grounds.

The following month, Schoeberl provided another sole-source justification directing NASA contracting and financial personnel to award a $60,000 software procurement to his wife's company. He also asked colleagues about how he could direct Recovery Act funds to Animated Earth, according to the plea agreement.

In addition, Schoeberl admitted to instructing his wife on how to invoice NASA for work performed by her company.

Between fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2008, Animated Earth was awarded more than $190,000 in NASA contracts, all without competition, according to data on USASpending.gov, a federal Web site that aggregates contract spending data.

Schoeberl's 2007 financial disclosure form did not include the more than $50,000 in contracts his wife's firm earned that year.

Schoeberl's attorney, Jacob S. Frenkel, said his client's connection to Animated Earth was not a secret at NASA and that Schoeberl believed strongly in the software his wife's firm developed.

"This is a scientist who has poured his heart and soul into NASA and who has always acted in the best interests of NASA and the public," said Frenkel, an attorney with the Maryland law firm Shulman, Rogers, Gandal, Pordy & Ecker, P.A. "This is not a case of deception or inappropriate enrichment. It is about not following the very strict ethics rules applicable to senior government officials."

Goddard Space Flight Center officials did not respond to questions about the status of Animated Earth's contracts. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland said the office does not anticipate filing any other charges in the case.

A native of Iowa, Schoeberl is known as one of the country's most accomplished atmospheric scientists. According to a biography posted on NASA's Web site, he has received numerous awards from the space agency, including its highest honor in 2000, the Distinguished Service Award. Schoeberl has written more than 150 articles in atmospheric science journals and is a past president of the Atmospheric Sciences Section of the American Geophysical Union.

In 2005, he received the Presidential Rank Award for meritorious senior professionals.

Schoeberl faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced on Dec. 1. Frenkel said he hopes his client's contributions to NASA will be considered during sentencing.

"The departure of Dr. Schoeberl from NASA under these circumstances is a major loss to U.S. atmospheric and satellite programs," he said. "It is my hope and that of the entire scientific community that he will receive full credit for his tremendous contributions to the atmospheric sciences and U.S. government programs over the past 30 years."

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