House investigators seek Justice probe of NASA general counsel

Bipartisan request suggests top lawyer may have destroyed government records and obstructed justice in throwing away meeting tapes.

House lawmakers this week requested a criminal investigation into the possibility that NASA General Counsel Michael Wholley destroyed government records and obstructed justice.

In a bipartisan letter signed by the chairman and ranking member of the House Science and Technology panel's investigations subcommittee, lawmakers asked the attorney general to investigate whether Wholley broke any laws when he destroyed all DVDs of an all-hands meeting between NASA Administrator Michael Griffin and inspector general office staff.

At a May subcommittee hearing, Wholley testified that he broke the disks in pieces and threw them away, shortly after the agency chief of staff collected all known recordings of the meeting. Griffin had called the meeting to discuss an IG group investigation that found the appearance of a lack of independence in Inspector General Robert Cobb's close relationship with the administrator. The investigation did not find evidence of an actual lack of independence.

In their letter, Reps. Brad Miller, D-N.C., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., claimed that Wholley had known since at least February that the committee took an active interest in the matter. A week before the April 10 inspector general staff meeting, Wholley allegedly sent an e-mail to an Office of Management and Budget official titled "Hearings??" on the possibility of the administrator's appearance before the subcommittee.

"Wholley's knowing destruction of sensitive records in his possession was a great detriment to our committees' investigations," the letter stated.

The lawmakers rejected Wholley's argument that the recordings were not yet government records when he destroyed them, citing a Federal Records Act definition of "record" as "All books, papers, maps, photographs, machine readable materials … preserved or appropriate for preservation by [an] agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations or other activities of the government."

Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin confirmed that the request had been received and said, "As with any allegation of criminal misconduct, investigators would review the matter."

Ablin declined to say how long it would take to reach a decision on whether to investigate, but noted that in either case the department does not confirm the existence of ongoing investigations. A committee spokeswoman said aides did not yet have a sense of whether Justice officials were likely to pursue the case.

From e-mail records obtained by the committee, Wholley appeared to know as early as March that he could become the focus of a firestorm. "Sorry to drone on so long," he allegedly wrote to a colleague at the end of an e-mail regarding a strategy for responding to the IG group's report on Cobb. "There's a lot here and I want to ensure that the [memo for the record] covers the advice we provided to the administrator so that if it hits the fan, I am in the crosshairs, not him! I am expendable; he aint!!(sic)"