NASA inspector general rejects allegations, claims independence

Commerce IG retires in face of three ongoing investigations.

NASA Inspector General Robert Cobb defended his performance as "uncompromised" during a joint House and Senate hearing Thursday in which lawmakers hammered away at his record of consulting closely with the agency head, restricting the scope of investigations and verbally abusing his staff.

Before a House science investigative committee and the Senate committee with jurisdiction over NASA, former senior IG officials testified that Cobb had impaired their work by interfering with its scope or outcome.

Kevin Carson, who directed NASA safety and security audits before leaving the office in 2005, testified that Cobb informally shared audit results with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin before they were complete and killed productive audit projects out of concern that they would embarrass the agency.

"By constantly writing and rewriting audit reports, not allowing audits of potentially controversial issues to be performed or reports of completed audits to be publicly issued, constantly denigrating the audit staff in public and in private [and] intimidating auditors and staff through the use of verbal threats, foul language and intimidating gestures, Mr. Cobb showed that he lacked independence from agency officials," Carson told lawmakers.

Debra Herzog, who was a deputy assistant secretary for investigations under Cobb until she moved to the Postal Service in 2005, recounted two cases in which the IG initially blocked the execution of search warrants issued in cooperation with Justice Department attorneys. In one case, a three-day delay in executing the warrant could have allowed the subject to remove relevant evidence, she said.

Lance Carrington, a former assistant IG for investigations, said he left NASA after Cobb told him point-blank that he would rather Carrington not pursue investigations.

Asked to respond to the allegations, Cobb defended his performance and said a recent investigation into his actions by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, a committee of inspectors general charged with overseeing their peers, was full of errors.

That committee report concluded that Cobb had abused his authority, created an appearance of a lack of independence and not adhered to a series of quality standards for inspector general offices. But it did not make recommendations regarding Cobb's continued tenure or appropriate follow-up actions, deferring to Administrator Griffin to determine an appropriate response.

When Griffin indicated that his primary response to the report would be to send Cobb to a management training course, James Burrus, the chairman of the investigating committee, responded in a letter that that punishment would be insufficient.

"All members of the committee believe the proposed course of action recommended by the administrator of NASA was inadequate to address the conduct of IG Cobb," Burrus wrote. "All members further believe that disciplinary action up to and including removal could be appropriate."

"Today, for the first time, I am responding publicly to unjustified allegations against me," Cobb told lawmakers. "The [PCIE's Integrity Committee] did not suggest that any matter covered in the wide-ranging investigation was mishandled by the NASA OIG. But the conclusions the IC did reach were as flawed as the investigation on which they were based, and are demonstrably invalid."

Cobb defended consulting with the NASA chief on ongoing work, noting that inspectors general report to and are under the supervision of their agency heads. Before he took office and established a good working relationship with the administrator, he said, the IG office had between 400 and 500 outstanding audit recommendations. "While the OIG was making recommendations, they were not being implemented, in contrast to what has occurred during my tenure as IG," Cobb said.

With respect to charges that he lacks independence, Cobb told lawmakers, "There is no work in our office that has been compromised in any way, shape or form."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a freshman senator who was an elected auditor for the state of Missouri before joining Congress, expressed outrage at Cobb's record and said his decisions to hold back the results of controversial audits amounted to a waste of taxpayer dollars.

McCaskill raised the question of whether Cobb's forwarding of advance audit results to administration officials would constitute a punishable violation of the "yellow book" of government accounting standards.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., refused to accept Cobb's defenses and charged that he cannot operate effectively absent the confidence of his staff and Congress. As an example of his conflicted interests, Miller questioned whether Cobb could reasonably be asked to investigate charges that his general counsel had improperly destroyed videotapes of a meeting with IG staff on the results of the PCIE investigation.

"You certainly can ask," Cobb replied, drawing chuckles from around the hearing room.

Despite lawmakers' clear antagonism, they do not have the authority to remove inspectors general from office, and Cobb told reporters following the hearing that he did not intend to resign.

On Friday another IG who has come under congressional and PCIE scrutiny on allegations of travel fraud and other charges resigned.

Johnnie Frazier, who was the subject of open investigations by the Office of Special Counsel, the PCIE and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he would retire effective June 29. In an e-mail to staff, he described his "disappointment and outright sadness at leaving Commerce in the midst of controversy."

"It seemed plain that Mr. Frazier was in deep trouble, so his departure is hardly a surprise," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, in a statement. "Inspectors general are the people we trust to gauge honest behavior in others, and it seems clear that Mr. Frazier was unfit for the job. He was the cause of ethical problems instead of the cure."