A key congressional leader said Thursday that NASA's top lawyer may have committed a crime in destroying a recording of a controversial meeting between agency Administrator Michael Griffin, his embattled inspector general and agency staffers.
A hearing Thursday before the House Science Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee painted "an ugly picture" of how NASA leaders reacted to a highly critical outside investigation of NASA Inspector General Robert "Moose" Cobb, said Chairman Brad Miller, D-N.C.
The space agency's general counsel, Michael Wholley, admitted under oath Thursday that he took DVD recordings of a controversial April 10 meeting, snapped them in half and tossed them into the trash because he didn't want them making their way to the public.
"It is impossible not to assume the worst about what the destroyed DVD showed," Miller said. "NASA officials knew perfectly well in advance that the meeting could further compromise the independence of the Inspector General's Office. People who attended the meeting report that's exactly what happened, and NASA officials admit that they destroyed the DVD to keep it from becoming public."
U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., lashed into Wholley for destroying public records and said he is willing to sign a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales with Miller requesting a criminal investigation.
"I think it's very clear the tape was a public record," Sensenbrenner said, brandishing a copy of federal law on preserving public documents. "It's also a crime to destroy public records."
The April meeting was controversial and sparked bad feelings among many of the inspector-general staffers for various reasons, including Griffin's reported comments that the IG's office should lay off technical audits as well as investigations of waste, fraud and abuse that totaled less than $1 billion.
The meeting was called in response to a lengthy outside investigation into Cobb's behavior that concluded he had failed to exercise the independence expected of an inspector general and had mistreated his staff. The investigation and harsh report released by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency said firing Cobb was an option but left the decision to NASA.
Some members of Congress, including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., think the report was damning enough for Cobb to step down. But Griffin, who with President Bush oversees the inspector general, is backing Cobb.
Griffin called the April 10 meeting with more than 120 staffers from the watchdog office as a way to rebut the outside investigation's conclusion that his inspector general lacked independence. He invited Cobb to the meeting to support him and then told the auditors and investigators that they should limit their work, according to people who were there.
By law, inspectors general are supposed to have free rein over what they investigate within federal agencies and are expected to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest in their oversight role.
Evelyn Klemstine, assistant inspector general for investigations, criticized NASA leaders for having Cobb present and for the admonitions to stay away from certain kinds of investigations. Klemstine said Griffin didn't want them doing technical investigations, even though her staff includes engineers and other technical experts.
Miller said that was especially troubling, as was the larger allegation that Cobb was not independent of the NASA leaders he was supposed to be watching over.
"The IG staff shouldn't be hearing from the administrator on what their job is. The IG is the cop on his block," Miller said.
Klemstine testified that some of her staff were very upset after the meeting and felt undermined.
But David Mould, assistant administrator for public affairs, said Griffin merely explained that major waste, fraud and abuse investigations were what he viewed as the most beneficial work for the watchdog team. He made it clear, Mould said, that the IG's office was free to investigate what it chose.
Assistant Inspector General for Audits Kevin Winters said it was a tense meeting in the basement of NASA headquarters, with employees gathered in an auditorium's tiered seating and others listening in from around the country.
"There was a natural -- in my opinion -- tension," Winters testified. "The administrator was going to address allegations of misconduct of our boss, with our boss present."
The day after the controversial meeting, Griffin's chief of staff, Paul Morrell, scurried about collecting all the recordings he could find of the meeting. An e-mail released by the House panel accuses him of ordering the destruction of copies made at NASA field centers.
Morrell denied ordering the recordings to be destroyed and said he merely turned over the ones made at headquarters to Wholley. "I figured he and his office would know what to do," said Morrell, as he sat at the witness table with his arms crossed.
"It seems like you came powerfully close to saying: `Will no one rid me of these troublesome DVDs?' " Miller said.
Morrell testified Thursday that he was unhappy that the meeting was recorded in the first place.
Miller countered that if Morrell had been worried about the staff feeling intimidated, he should have been more concerned with Cobb's presence than about the taping.
E-mails released by the committee show Wholley and others knew in advance that the meeting would stir up problems. They also knew Congress had expressed concern after the Cobb investigative findings were made public.
Griffin said Thursday that he still backs Wholley as general counsel. "In retrospect, it was a mistake to destroy the recordings after they were made," Griffin said.
Wholley said that although he has 152 attorneys working for him, he made the decision to destroy the recordings without asking anyone else for a legal opinion about whether they were public records. On Thursday, he apologized for that decision. "I did not consider the political aspect of this. . . . What I did, I did in good faith. It was an honest mistake."
In e-mails released by the committee, he made it clear he was working to protect Griffin.
In one March e-mail about NASA's handling of the report on Cobb, Wholley said he wanted to make sure that "if it hits the fan" he wanted to be in the crossfire himself to save Griffin.
In the e-mail, Wholley wrote: "I am expendable: he ain't!!! (-:"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun