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REPORT: NASA Inspector General Underperforming

January 10, 2009

NASA’s inspector general is not doing enough to police waste and abuse at the space agency, Congressional auditors said.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) compared NASA’s in-house financial watchdog to that of 27 other federal agencies, and ranked him second to last, according to a new report obtained by the Associated Press.

The report said that NASA saved taxpayers just 36 cents for every dollar their department spent, versus an average of $9.49 among all federal inspectors general.

The GAO, the auditing arm that investigates agencies at the request of Congress, found that NASA’s inspector general did not conduct enough financial audits and was not adequately independent from the agency.

However, in a written response to the report the NASA inspector general said the GAO report misrepresented the audits and was flawed.

Inspectors general are independent watchdogs assigned to each major government agency to look for fraud, waste and abuse and make recommendations on how to best save taxpayer dollars.  They are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. 

The 77-page GAO report said that NASA’s inspector general spends an enormous amount of effort on investigations that aren’t intended to save money, despite NASA’s history of cost overruns.  Indeed, last month the agency reported that a major Mars mission would exceed its budget by $400 million, forcing NASA’s chief to admit the agency had a problem with calculating cost.

Robert “Moose” Cobb, the agency’s inspector general, “has generally not focused on audits with recommendations for improving the economy and efficiency of NASA’s programs … with potential monetary savings,” said the GAO report.

Only one out of 150 NASA inspector general audits made recommendations for saving money during 2006 and 2007, the report said.  For instance, the inspector general reported financial challenges within spaceflight operations, the multibillion-dollar program to run the space shuttle and the space station.  However, at no time in 2006 or 2007 did the inspector general provide a single recommendation on how to conserve costs within the program, the GAO report said.

Congressional leaders from both parties have called for Cobb’s dismissal.

“This report confirms that the inspector general at NASA isn’t doing the job for either NASA or the taxpayers,” said Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

“With the evidence that’s piled up about the shortcomings of this watchdog operation, and given the size of NASA’s operation at $20 billion, it looks like new leadership is needed in the office of the inspector general,” Senator Grassley said in an email.

“NASA spends billions of dollars with private contractors and how much money Cobb left on the table due to his failures to manage his office is hard to imagine. The country can’t afford Mr. Cobb,” wrote Bart Gordon (D-TN), House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, in an email.

A report issued two years ago by the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency said that Cobb had abused his authority, and did not seem adequately independent from NASA.  The report cited one case surrounding whether to publicize the theft of a ring from the remains of the space shuttle Columbia. 

Congressional leaders said Cobb was too subservient to the NASA administrator, and had called for his resignation.  That request went disregarded.

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