Sen. Claire McCaskill demands answers over slow pace, lack of processes to make prompt determinations following investigations.
A government watchdog agency concluded that NASA has not been making final decisions on whistleblower reprisal investigations involving contractors on a timely basis, and has no defined process to ensure prompt action.
In a report released Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office found that while NASA’s inspector general office completed all of its six investigations into allegations of whistleblower reprisals brought by contractors from 2008 until June 2017 within required timeframes, not once did the NASA administrator issue a final determination within the required 30 days.
And in one case, agency officials could find no evidence that a final decision had been made at all.
“In one of those five complaints, an official from the Office of General Counsel was unable to provide us with the issued order and said he did not believe one was completed, and could not provide an explanation as to why an order was not completed,” GAO wrote.
Of five cited investigations with data available, the shortest time before the administrator responded to the inspector general’s findings was more than 50 days. The administrator took more than 250 days to complete another investigation, and the case without a final determination had languished for at least 300 days.
Additionally, GAO found that the NASA administrator’s office lacks a formal process for handling OIG reprisal cases regarding contractor whistleblowers. This could have a chilling effect on future potential whistleblowers, investigators warned.
“Because the administrator took longer than 30 days to respond to all reprisal complaints, including one where the Office of General Counsel failed to provide evidence that the administrator responded at all, there may be the unintended consequence of disincentivizing future whistleblowers from making disclosures who fear their complaint will not be handled timely,” GAO wrote. “Internal controls require that management should establish and operate monitoring activities to monitor the internal control system, evaluate the results, and take appropriate action to address issues on a timely basis.”
Investigators also recommended that NASA review its guidance, and if necessary develop new measures, to ensure it properly defines when whistleblower protections should be conveyed, and the agency administrator should communicate those protections to grantees and subgrantees, in addition to contractor organizations.
NASA concurred with all of GAO’s recommendations, but it now faces new questions from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who requested the watchdog agency’s original investigation. In a letter to acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, McCaskill questioned why, in three cases, the NASA administrator went against OIG recommendations in determining whistleblowers were not entitled to legal protections.
“If we don’t protect whistleblowers against retaliation, they won’t come forward to identify waste, fraud and abuse,” she said in a statement. “The same agency that has propelled the hopes and dreams of generations of Americans into space can surely do a better job of protecting those blowing the whistle on internal problems.”