Destroyed data adds to fracas over NASA IG

Senior members of Congress from both parties have asked Attorney General Roberto Gonzales to investigate NASA General Counsel Michael Wholley and possibly prosecute him for obstruction of justice for destroying DVD recordings of an agency meeting.

The incident is part of a continuing flap about alleged misconduct by NASA's inspector general, Robert Cobb, and whether he rigorously oversees agency operations.

A NASA spokesman said the agency stands ready to respond to any requests for assistance in an investigation of the data destruction matter. The spokesman added that NASA officials had not yet received any such requests from the Justice Department.

Rep. Brad Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Science and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the ranking Republican on that panel, joined in signing the letter. They asked Gonzales to investigate whether Wholley's destruction of video recordings of an April 10 meeting between the inspector general staff and NASA administrator Michael Griffin constituted obstruction of justice and to consider prosecuting Wholley if his actions did, in fact, violate the relevant criminal statutes.

The meeting concerned actions Griffin was taking pursuant to criticism of Cobb's work by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency. PCIE reported in January that the NASA inspector general had abused his authority and lacked an appearance of independence from the agency's leaders.

Wholley's low-tech approach of simply breaking up the DVDs that held the disputed recordings apparently succeeded in completely destroying the verbatim records of the meeting. House staff members who sought to reconstruct the discussions had to do so by interviewing the participants and reviewing Griffins' talking points, according to the letter from Miller and Sensenbrenner to Gonzalez.

When he destroyed the records, Wholley knew that Cobb's work and Griffin's response to the resulting problems were under scrutiny by the House Science Committee, according to the congressmen's letter. The congressional staff reconstruction of the incident stated that Griffin had used the videotaped teleconference to defend Cobbs' actions, the lawmakers wrote.

'The content of this meeting, Mr. Wholley's interest in making sure that the actions taken by the PCIE and NASA were presented in a controlled manner to Congressional committees, and his own statements as to why he destroyed the [the DVDs], make it highly probable that he intended to obstruct both our investigation and our hearing, which was held on Thursday, June 7, 2007,' the two congressmen wrote.

The letter quoted Wholley's May 24 testimony before the subcommittee, in which he stated that 'if [the DVDs] were retained and filed, they could become [government] records by virtue of that retention. From my perspective'I did not believe it wise to have these in any way become records, subject to release under [the Freedom of Information Act]. ' I personally made the decision to destroy them, and I did so by breaking them into pieces and throwing them in the trash.'

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