NASA administrator Charles Bolden did not break any laws but did breach an ethics pledge by consulting with one of his former employers on NASA business, an investigation by the space agency has concluded.
NASA's Office of the Inspector General, the agency's internal watchdog office, released an 11-page report of the findings today (Sept. 20).
"I have reviewed the report and I readily accept the findings of NASAs Inspector General," Bolden said in a statement sent to SPACE.com.
The investigation was sparked by an April 30 phone call Bolden made to a senior official at Marathon Oil Corp.
Before becoming NASA administrator in July 2009, Bolden served on Marathon's board of directors for six years. At the time of the phone call, he held more than $500,000 in stock in Marathon, according to the report.
Bolden placed the call, which lasted 10-15 minutes, seeking advice about biofuels, because NASA was considering funding an alternative fuel project to research producing fuel by processing wastewater and algae.
"Bolden told us that he still was seeking information about the feasibility of deriving fuel from algae," the Inspector General's report stated. "He said he recalled that Marathon might have some expertise in this area and decided to contact the company to gather additional technical information and perspective concerning the use of algae as biofuel."
The investigation into a possible conflict of interest found no evidence that either Bolden or the oil company received any financial gain as a result of the call, or that the conversation caused Bolden to reconsider his opinion on the proposed project.
"I should have explored the implications of my inquiry prior to acting," Bolden said. "As soon as a possible conflict of interest was identified, I proactively contacted our General Counsel and fully supported an independent review of my actions."
Ultimately, NASA did decide to fund a two-year, $10 million collaboration with the U.S. Navy on project Omega, short for Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae.
While the probe found that Bolden did not violate any ethics regulations or federal laws, in reaching out to Marathon Bolden broke a pledge he had signed on becoming NASA administrator that he would refrain for two years from having private communications with Marathon or any other of his former employers concerning NASA business.
In an interview with the office of Inspector General, "Bolden readily acknowledged that he had erred in contacting Marathon," the report stated. The administrator has since recused himself from the Omega project and taken a refresher course in ethics training.
"Although the Inspector General found that no laws were broken, this incident serves as a reminder that we must all strive to hold ourselves to the highest standards of ethical conduct and I have a responsibility to set that example for NASA and its senior leaders," Bolden said.
Bolden is a former NASA astronaut and space shuttle commander with four spaceflights and 14 years in the astronaut office under his belt. He is a retired major general in the U.S. Marine Corps.
In April 1990 he served as pilot on the shuttle flight that launched the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. Bolden also flew on the first joint U.S.-Russian shuttle mission, which featured a cosmonaut as a member of his crew.