NASA chief reprimanded in ethics probe

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 5, 2010 

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden violated ethics standards by contacting Marathon Oil about a biofuel project while he owned as much as $1 million in the energy company's stock, a recent internal probe found.

The former astronaut admitted his April 10 call to a Marathon executive was "inappropriate," removed himself from the alternative fuel research and "received supplemental training regarding his ethical responsibilities" as a result of the probe by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin.

Bolden was on Marathon's board of directors for six years before the Senate confirmed him July 15, 2009, as the 15th head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The inspector general's investigation focused on Bolden's April 30 phone conversation with Linda Capuano, Marathon's vice president for emerging technology.

Bolden told investigators that he contacted Capuano to discuss the technical feasibility of deriving fuel from algae, which NASA was considering funding under a joint project with the Navy.

Bolden and Capuano discussed the project, called the Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae, or OMEGA, for 10 to 15 minutes, they told investigators.

Capuano expressed skepticism about the viability of deriving large amounts of fuel from algae, according to the report.

That conversation violated the ethics pledge that Bolden had signed after the Senate confirmed him as NASA head, the inspector general found.

After interviewing 15 senior NASA officials and scientists, and consulting with the FBI, the Justice Department and the Office of Government Ethics, Martin concluded that Bolden had not broken any federal law or violated conflict-of-interest regulations.

The space agency's top internal investigator said he'd found no actual conflict of interest in Bolden's behavior, but he criticized the administrator for creating the appearance of possible conflict.

"Bolden's action predictably led to concerns both inside and outside NASA about whether his actions relating to OMEGA had been improperly influenced by a large oil company in which he held a substantial amount of stock," the report said.

As part of his inaugural address pledge to open "a new era of responsibility" in Washington, Obama issued an executive order Jan. 21, 2009, his first full day in office, requiring all of his appointees to sign a new ethics pledge.

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