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NASA Boss Caught In Marathon Controversy

September 21, 2010

NASA’s chief administrator was caught up in another controversy on Monday, this time for making “inappropriate” contact with an oil company while working on an alternative fuel project, according to a report by the Associated Press.

The inspector general for NASA reported that a short phone conversation last April between Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. and a senior Marathon Oil official was not consistent with the ethics pledge he signed upon taking office last year. It also raised concerns about an appearance of a conflict of interest, the inspector general said.

Bolden is a former board member of Marathon Oil and remains a major stockholder. At the time of the phone conversation in question, his stock was worth upwards of $1 million.

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin concluded, in an 11-page report, that Bolden’s contact with the oil company did not violate federal laws or ethics regulations. But the action caused some discontent within the space agency and was the latest in a series of embarrassing mistakes by Bolden.

Over the summer, Bolden told Middle Eastern news network Al-Jazeera that one of NASA’s main goals was to reach out to the Muslim world and help them feel good about their historical contributions to science. NASA and White House officials spent most of July trying to explain Bolden’s comments.

And earlier this year, Bolden upset many NASA employees with the abrupt way he rolled out President Obama’s new vision for human space exploration after the shuttle fleet is retired.

Bolden later apologized for how he handled the situation, given all the anxieties about implementing job losses throughout the shuttle program.

In the latest controversy, Bolden acknowledged to Martin that he made a mistake when he talked to Marathon Oil about the alternative fuel project, calling it “inappropriate.” He has since withdrawn from the project and has taken refresher ethics training.

The algae-based fuel research project, called Omega, is run by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. Bolden was looking for someone at Marathon to offer a technical opinion, while he was considering a proposed agreement between NASA and the Navy, according to Martin.

Martin said Bolden pledged to not have any private communications with Marathon or any of his former employers regarding NASA business for two years since taking office in June 2009.

Bolden said he accepts the inspector general’s findings. “My intention was to gather an outside perspective about a potential agency research project,” he said in a statement issued by NASA on Monday. “I should have explored the implications of my inquiry prior to acting.”

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