Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007; A21
NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin held an unusual meeting with the staff of the inspector general who oversees his agency and then ordered that video recordings of the meeting be destroyed, a House panel said yesterday.
In a letter to Griffin, the chairman of the Science and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight demanded an explanation from the NASA administrator and accused him of improperly trying to influence the watchdog office's decisions on what it should investigate.
In addition, the letter from Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) said the order to destroy the meeting tapes, which was issued by NASA's chief of staff, "appears on its face to be nothing less than the destruction of evidence."
In a response yesterday, NASA spokesman David Mould said that the meeting was proper, and was a way for Griffin to discuss outstanding issues with the inspector general's staff and to express support for a strong watchdog office.
He also said NASA's chief of staff had ordered that the meeting not be recorded, but that it was anyway. As a result, he said, the agency's general counsel advised that any recordings be destroyed.
Griffin's meeting included NASA Inspector General Robert W. Cobb, who has been at the center of a controversy over his close relationship with Griffin's predecessor, Sean O'Keefe, and over his temperamental management style. A report early this month by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which oversees the government's corps of inspectors general, concluded that Cobb had abused his authority in his treatment of his staff and appeared to lack the requisite independence from top NASA officials.
After highlights of the report were made public early this month, Griffin defended Cobb, concluding that he needs training in management skills but should not be fired. In a letter to the integrity council in March, Griffin wrote that the investigation of Cobb had not found "any actual conflict of interest or actual lack of independence on his part."
Miller, chairman of the oversight subcommittee, wrote in his letter to Griffin: "Your role in disciplining and defending Mr. Cobb has eroded any vestige of independence for Mr. Cobb or, indeed, his own staff."
Miller wrote: "We have been told that your presentation to (the inspector general's) staff was no simple pep talk. Allegations have come to us that you told staff what you thought was worthwhile work and what was not."
If true, he wrote, Griffin's behavior would be "unprecedented and highly improper."
Under the Inspector General Act of 1978, the president appoints independent officials to monitor every Cabinet department and the larger federal agencies through audits and investigations.
Before he was appointed NASA's inspector general in 2002, Cobb spent 15 months as an adviser on ethics and conflicts of interest to then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales. Cobb quickly became a target of criticism from NASA whistle-blowers and members of his staff. Some complained that he had dropped investigations of serious safety concerns and that his mercurial behavior drove experienced auditors and investigators from the office.
In his letter, Miller said his staff had been told that five compact discs containing video of the April 10 meeting were delivered for destruction to the office of Michael C. Wholley, NASA's general counsel. The letter said the existence of the discs suggested that the recording may still exist on a NASA server and asked that the contents be handed over to the subcommittee.
Miller also asked for all records regarding Griffin's "determination" that Cobb had not abused his authority, the April 10 meeting and the decision to destroy the video recording. In an April 23 letter to Miller's panel, NASA Assistant Administrator Brian E. Chase wrote that the agency had looked for remaining copies of the video but had not found any.