Three members of Congress asked President Bush to fire NASA Inspector General Robert Cobb on Monday after reviewing findings from a federal probe.
Investigators examined 69 allegations against Cobb, a White House appointee, which included accusations of mistreating subordinates and lacking independence from NASA officials whom he was supposed to monitor. According to a Jan. 22 letter obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, a government integrity committee concluded Cobb "engaged in abuse of authority as an Inspector General by creating an abusive work environment."
Witnesses told investigators that Cobb berated, cursed and intimidated some employees in his office to the point of tears. The committee also found that in two instances, his actions created an appearance of a lack of independence, although neither of the cases was determined to be a violation of federal regulations.
NASA officials agreed that Cobb, who has denied any wrongdoing, could have behaved better. But they noted the committee failed to find he had broken any laws.
The vast majority of the allegations reviewed by the committee were not substantiated, did not constitute misconduct or fell outside the scope of the investigation, the letter read.
"[NASA Administrator Michael] Griffin expressed concerns about management and supervisory issues relating to Cobb and is taking administrative actions to address these issues," said David Mould, NASA's associate administrator for public affairs. "Because the conclusions pointed to no violation of law or regulation, no lack of integrity or actual conflict of interest, Griffin's recommended actions do not include removal from office."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., all of whom sit on committees that oversee NASA, disagree. They contend the report's findings are more than sufficient to justify Cobb's ouster.
"Mr. Cobb must be removed for the good of NASA and the nation, and we are requesting that you do so," a joint letter to the White House from Nelson and Miller read. "The Record of Investigation demonstrated that the office environment had seriously deteriorated and was affecting the staff's ability to conduct audits and investigations for fear of verbal abuse and ridicule."
Nelson was even blunter in an interview Monday.
"I have had innumerable complaints [about Cobb] in my office over the past two years, which is why I forwarded them to the proper authorities," he said. "Where there was smoke, the report says there was fire, and it is time for this guy to go."
In a March 14 letter obtained by the Sentinel, Griffin wrote to Clay Johnson, chairman of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, and recommended sending Cobb to the Federal Executive Institute, where he would get assistance developing an individual leadership and management-training plan.
Cobb would be assigned an executive coach to enhance his leadership and management skills and also would meet with NASA's deputy administrator bimonthly to discuss his professional growth. In addition, Griffin would meet with employees of Cobb's office to inform them of his actions and hear their concerns.
In a March 20 letter to Johnson also obtained by the Sentinel, integrity committee chairman James Burris Jr. wrote that Griffin's recommendations did not go far enough.
"All members of the committee believed the proposed course of action recommended by the Administrator of NASA was inadequate to address the conduct of IG Cobb," the letter read. "All members of the committee further believed that disciplinary action up to and including removal could be appropriate."
Cobb and a spokeswoman for his office did not return phone calls seeking comment Monday. He came to NASA in April 2002 after a 15-month stint as a White House ethics lawyer.
Cobb is one of 30 inspectors general at federal agencies appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress to independently promote efficiency and detect fraud and abuse.