NASA scientist avoids jail in procurement case

A prominent NASA scientist, who has admitted directing thousands of dollars in sole-source agency contracts to his wife's company and failing to report the income on a financial disclosure form, has been spared a prison sentence.

The U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., on Tuesday sentenced Mark Schoeberl, 60, of Silver Spring, Md., to one year's probation and a $10,000 fine. Schoeberl, who was a senior manager and a well-known atmospheric scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland before he retired earlier this year, pleaded guilty in September to one felony count of conflict of interest.

At Tuesday's sentencing, Schoeberl, who spent 30-plus years with the agency, expressed remorse for his mistakes and admitted an error in judgment. Three scientists, including two who still work for NASA, also addressed the court and requested leniency for Schoeberl. More than 50 other scientists, included one Nobel Prize winner, submitted letters praising his character and credentials.

Schoeberl's attorney Jacob Frenkel said the sentence was a reflection of his client's "enormous contributions to world atmospheric sciences and anticipated valuable continuing work in support of climate change research."

Prosecutors agreed Schoeberl did not deserve to go to jail, noting in court documents that he quickly accepted responsibility for his conduct, had no criminal history and had a lengthy record of service at NASA.

Schoeberl was the chief scientist of Goddard's earth sciences division, which conducts climate research, and the project scientist for the Aura mission to study the Earth's ozone layer, air quality and climate. Schoeberl's position enabled him to guide funds budgeted for the Aura mission.

According to the plea agreement, in mid-2004 Schoeberl began inquiring about ways to direct work to his wife Barbara's company, Animated Earth, a small business that develops and distributes Earth Today, an exhibit displaying near-real-time earth science data. The couple previously had collaborated on a host of projects and presentations for NASA and court documents indicate that the relationship was well-known at the agency.

Prosecutors said Mark Schoeberl 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 prepared a document that justified Animated Earth as the only contractor eligible to bid on a new award for maintenance on kiosks that the company previously had installed on NASA grounds. In June, he provided another sole-source justification directing NASA contracting personnel to award a $60,000 software contract to Animated Earth.

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

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 date on contract spending.

Frenkel argued that Schoeberl was not motivated by financial gain but rather by a belief that Animated Earth's software was the best product available for earth science education.

"Unfortunately, his appreciation of the efficacy and value of the product, and his encouragement of its use, was inconsistent with his professional position at NASA because Dr. Schoeberl's job included responsibility for administering the educational function associated with the satellite program he supervised," the attorney wrote in a sentencing memo he prepared for the court. "Once a NASA lawyer instructed Dr. Schoeberl that he, in substance, should not even be communicating about Earth Today, it was too late; by then the incidents supporting use of the software already had occurred."

In Nov. 20 sentencing correspondence to the court, prosecutors said the government does not seem to have suffered a financial loss because "Animated Earth appears to have completed the work that it contracted with the federal government."

Nontheless, Frenkel said NASA has refused to pay an outstanding bill to Barbara Schoeberl because of the criminal case. The Goddard Space Flight Center did not respond to a request for comment.

In the wake of the criminal charges against Schoeberl, agency lawyers reportedly issued a memo to staffers advising them of ethics rules and post-employment restrictions, Frenkel said in his court filings. He said several NASA employees subsequently came forward about similar ethical conflicts.

Schoeberl, who has received numerous awards from the space agency and written more than 150 published articles, now finds himself out of work and "radioactive" to potential employers, Frenkel said.

"The atmospheric science program has been his life and he has no desire to abandon it," he said.

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