Skip to comments.(Shuttle Accident) Board Paid (by NASA) to Ensure Secrecy
Posted on 05/12/2003 11:47:32 AM PDT by anymouse
Civilian members of the board investigating the shuttle Columbia disaster -- outsiders who were added to reassure Congress and the public that the board would be fully independent of the space agency -- are actually being paid executive-level salaries by NASA.
The agency quietly put the five civilians on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration payroll, at pay rates of $134,000 a year, in order to take advantage of provisions that allow boards composed exclusively of "federal employees" to conduct their business in secret.
If the civilians had not been hired by NASA, a federal law would have required the investigating board to meet publicly, justify any closed-door sessions and keep transcripts and minutes that would ultimately become public records.
Each of the 13 board members is now classified as a federal employee. Besides the five civilians and chairman, other members include four active-duty military officers, two federal transportation officials and a NASA executive. And as a result, the board says it is legally permitted to meet in secret and promise "confidentiality" to NASA employees and others among the more than 200 individuals it has interviewed.
Last Tuesday, board Chairman Harold Gehman Jr. said that transcripts of these interviews will be kept secret from the general public, and even from Congress. Said Gehman, a retired Navy admiral who is being paid at the rate of $142,500 per year, "Those are never going to see the light of day."
Gehman's insistence on confidentiality has rankled members of Congress, who say the board's report -- now expected in July -- must be accompanied by the documents that drove the conclusions. And public-policy critics say the salaries call into question whether the board is truly independent from the agency it is investigating.
"Three words -- conflict of interest," said Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "The upshot is, we don't have an independent investigating board. This means NASA is investigating itself. This defeats the whole purpose of having an independent inquiry.
"What they did was hire outsiders and convert them into an internal board. It's just baffling."
"I don't see it an issue for the Board members to be on the federal payroll -- this board, unlike most pro-bono government committees, is essentially a full-time job (for which people should receive some compensation)," Ride wrote in an e-mail to the Orlando Sentinel last week. "But one might ask whether it should be NASA's payroll."
"When you're investigating a tragedy of this magnitude, the only way to restore credibility is to be open about the investigation," said Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota media ethics and law professor, former executive director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and open-government advocate.
The reason was an obscure law called the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires appointed boards and commissions to publicly advertise their meetings, whether open or closed; keep minutes of all sessions; and generally make their records available to the public.
But boards are exempt from that act if they are made up of full-time federal employees. And from the early days of the board, Gehman has acknowledged, he didn't want to operate under the act's rules.
That meant making sure every board member was a "federal employee." So NASA, dipping into a special $50 million congressional appropriation to fund the investigation into the Columbia tragedy, gave each of the new members a "NASA excepted service appointment" for up to one year, at a salary rate of $134,000, or about $500 per day worked.
Tetrault, who retired in 2000 as chairman of McDermott International Inc., said he initially offered to work for free -- but was told he had to be paid.
"As I recall, we had to be designated as a Safety Investigation to preserve witness privilege, which we thought was essential to getting individuals to open up to us," he wrote in an e-mail response to the Sentinel last week.
Eric Glitzenstein, a Washington, D.C., public-interest lawyer who has won several suits involving challenges to the advisory committee act, said the action "seems to be an obvious effort to subvert the [FACA] statute.
"You don't point to a board of full-time federal employees and say you're having an independent review, " he said. "What's problematic is not that they are receiving compensation. It's that they used that to get around the statute -- and public accountability."
The first sentence of Executive Order 12546 stated the Challenger panel was subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act. It said the 11 civilian members "shall serve without compensation for their work on the Commission," other than travel expenses.
Eugene Covert, who headed MIT's aeronautics and astronautics department when he served on the commission, said he thinks taking a salary "would tend to bias what [board members] do."
"I just think in general, pro bono work should be pro bono work."
Challenger commission member Robert Hotz, the retired editor of Aviation Week, said the commission did most of its work in public -- with sworn testimony -- forcing witnesses to either be uncomfortably honest or commit perjury.
"And they chose to be uncomfortable," Hotz said. "Secret testimony is bull---- in an accident investigation. Space is not an in-house thing. It's a public thing, a non-military thing."
In fact, most of the Challenger Commission files -- a total of 108 feet -- are available to the public at the National Archives. Only the equivalent of four small boxes are exempt under national-security and privacy grounds, said Steve Tilley, chief of special access at the National Archives and Records Administration.
The board has yet to publicly interview any senior NASA shuttle managers who were directly involved in making key decisions during the Columbia mission.
(Excerpt) Read more at orlandosentinel.com ...