Lawmakers want NASA watchdog fired

Robert W. Cobb has been NASA's inspector general since 2002.
Robert W. Cobb has been NASA's inspector general since 2002.NASA
/ Source: NBC News Investigative Unit

Members of Congress sent a letter to the White House calling for the firing of NASA's inspector general on Monday, after a watchdog agency accused him of an abuse of authority and a lack of independence at the space agency.

In their letter to President Bush, the lawmakers alluded to a report from the independent federal watchdog agency, the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which was harshly critical of Inspector General Robert W. Cobb. Cobb took office in 2002, after his nomination by Bush and confirmation by the Senate. He previously served as an ethics expert in the White House general counsel's office.

The letter — signed by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C. — quoted the report as saying that "disciplinary action, up to and including removal, could be appropriate." Nelson and Miller head legislative panels that conduct oversight over the nation's space agency.

Congressional sources told NBC News that the report criticized Cobb for an "abuse of authority," for "failure to maintain independence and objectivity" and for a "failure to exercise significant oversight" over key NASA-related safety and national-security issues.

Monday's letter said the report accused Cobb of creating an abusive work environment and the appearance of a lack of independence, outside the standards expected of an inspector general.

Rough language at the office?
Congressional sources who have read the report said it faulted Cobb for rough language in the office, and for banging on his desk when addressing employees. "There was liberal use of the so-called 'F-word' in Mr. Cobb's language," one source said. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not officially authorized to discuss the report.

In their letter, Nelson and Miller said Cobb did not deny any of the allegations but "gave excuses for each of them." The lawmakers cited a deposition in which Cobb said he was "passionate when people are insubordinate to my face" and complained that his staff produced "deplorable and relatively meaningless" work that he had to rewrite.

In a news release accompanying the letter, the lawmakers said investigators also found that Cobb lunched, played golf with and traveled with former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe — raising questions about Cobb's independence. O'Keefe headed the space agency from 2001 to 2005. He and Cobb played key roles in addressing the safety issues raised when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

When contacted by NBC on Monday, Cobb would not comment on the report or any of the allegations, but said he would issue a statement in the future.

Watching the watchdogs
The President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency is made up of federal inspectors general, including Cobb. The inspectors general are supposed to provide independent oversight of an agency's workings, raising efficiency and fighting fraud and abuse.

It's very rare for the council to find that the ouster of a fellow inspector general could be appropriate. The council opened an investigation into Cobb's behavior more than a year ago, after hearing complaints that he failed to investigate safety violations and had retaliated against whistleblowers. Many of the complaints were filed by current and former employees of Cobb's own office. The investigation was conducted by the inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The PCIE Integrity Committee forwarded the results of that inquiry to Congress — after facing the threat of a congressional subpoena.

Before coming to NASA, Cobb served as associate counsel to the president, according to his biography on the Web site for the inspector general's office: "In this role, he handled the administration of the White House ethics program under the supervision of the Counsel to the President and was responsible for administration of the conflict of interest and financial disclosure clearance processes for candidates for nomination to Senate-confirmed positions."

This report includes updated information from