(Washington, D.C.) – U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) today put a hold on President Obama’s nomination of Elizabeth Robinson to be Undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Energy. Robinson is currently the Chief Financial Officer at NASA, and has been directly involved with the lack of approval for a contract to build vehicles at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana. In his letter to Robinson, Vitter asks questions about the use of private emails at NASA too.
“Under the Obama administration, NASA has been stalling on a job creating project at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans for no apparent reason,” Vitter said. “Ms. Robinson needs to answer questions about why they’ve delayed the project, and other questions about NASA’s operations before she leaves her job overseeing their finances.”
The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and Space Launch System (SLS) have both been delayed because NASA has failed to approve contracts for the projects, which would be built at the Michoud Assembly Facility. Approval of the delayed projects could mean putting approximately 300 to 600 Louisianans back to work. These are programs that are also important to the economies of more than 30 states and jobs across our nation.
As the ranking member of the NASA space subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Vitter secured key provisions in the bipartisan 2010 NASA Reauthorization that ensured Michoud Assembly Facility’s continued viability and to help keep Louisiana as an integral part of human space flight for years to come.
In September 2011, Vitter announced that NASA was choosing Michoud to construct components of its new heavy-lift rocket. The MPCV and SLS were both included.
Below is a copy of Vitter’s letter to Robinson.
October 21, 2013
Ms. Elizabeth Robinson
Chief Financial Officer
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
300 E Street, SW, Room 8L11
Washington, DC 20546
Dear Ms. Robinson:
As the Senate considers your nomination to be the Undersecretary of the Department of Energy, I think it is important to conduct a thorough review of your job performance in your current position as NASA’s Chief Financial Officer to assess what qualities and traits you will bring to your new position. With Louisiana’s economy being largely dependent on the energy sector, the undersecretary’s role will also have a significant impact on my state. I am concerned with some of your actions, or lack of actions, in performing your current duties at NASA. Delays and mismanagement of funds while you have been CFO will have a severe impact on thousands of jobs across the country. NASA’s Inspector General recently reported that the agency has struggled to achieve austerity during your tenure and that cost overruns have grown from $50 million in 2009 to $315 million last year.
Before the senate moves forward with a your nomination, it is appropriate that you provide us with answers to the following questions on matters that you are responsible for at NASA.
Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and Space Launch System Contract (SLS) Delays
As you know, the SLS is vital in returning the United States back to the forefront of deep space exploration. Unfortunately, I have concerns with some of your actions and policies that are directly affecting my state. Louisiana is home to Michoud Assembly Facility, which supports the Orion MPCV and SLS. Approval of the delayed contracts means could mean putting between 300 and 600 more Louisianans back to work. These are programs that are also important to the economies of more than 30 states and many jobs across our nation.
Although Congress, the White House, and NASA agreed that Orion and SLS are top priorities, and with the NASA Authorization Act signed into law in the fall of 2010 that reflected that agreement, NASA has continued to delay the identification of the MPCV and SLS architectures and has been underfunding them. The SLS configuration was not announced until late August 2011, the SLS contract still has not been definitized, and your office is prejudicially withholding $125 million of SLS funding through termination liability. Further, I understand that there is discussion to hit Orion and SLS harshly with sequestration, a move many fear would be made to make a case for cancellation.
While you have publicly stated your support for SLS, NASA’s budget request for the program, the delayed SLS contract definitization, and a myriad of other obstacles reflect a different indication of where the program may be heading.
1. The schedule for approval of the SLS that was laid out at the beginning of this process required you to approve the contract this past June 2013. However, it has yet to be approved and has sat on your desk for almost two years. As I understand the situation, the contract applicants have had hundreds of meetings in the past year with NASA to answer endless questions about the rocket. What is the current expected timeline for approval of the SLS contract, and can you please explain what appears to be intentional obstruction of the space flight program?
2. Your office is currently withholding $125 million of funding through contract termination liability. Those funds could be used towards space explorations programs instead of as a tool to harm contractors. How do you explain that withholding these funds appears to be using of termination liability as a tool to slow progress of SLS?
3. As I understand it, NASA is currently addressing sequestration disproportionately on Space Exploration programs. Numerous operations plans for fiscal year 2013 were submitted to the Appropriations Committees and rejected. In each one, Commercial Crew funding was fully restored post sequestration, but SLS and Orion were not. Are you enacting sequestration cuts evenly across all accounts at NASA? Are you intentionally trying to kill SLS and Orion? Why are you implementing sequestration in this biased manner? Please provide a chart that shows all operating plan submitted funding levels, listed by date, versus FY2013 appropriated levels.
4. A few months ago (article attached), former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told the Orlando Sentinel that Orion would fail and that SLS was a year behind schedule, although in reality SLS is five months ahead of schedule and under cost according to recent numbers. Do you share Lori Garver’s view that SLS is doomed to fail?
Using personal email for government business
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been heavily criticized for the secretive practices of the former Administrator and other EPA employees who were caught using personal email accounts to conduct government business. As I brought this issue to light, employees at NASA have expressed concern to me that some of its senior leadership have also carried multiple communications devices and used personal emails to conduct government business. In 2011, the Senate Commerce Committee considered subpoenaing NASA employee personal emails, perhaps an action they should have taken given the situation at the EPA and reports of activity at NASA. In light of these concerns, it is important that you answer the following questions:
1. Are you aware of anyone at NASA headquarters or NASA leadership using personal email to conduct government business? If so, who, when and what was discussed?
2. Have you ever used multiple government email accounts simultaneously? If so, please detail the time period these accounts were used and list all email accounts you use for official business, including public and or alias accounts.
3. Have you ever used any personal or non-government email account to conduct official NASA or government business or to discuss work-related issues? If so, please indicate who you spoke with, when the conversation occurred, and what was discussed.
4. Have you ever communicated with anyone at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) using a personal or non-government email account to conduct government business? If so, please indicate with whom you communicated, when the conversation occurred, and what was discussed.
5. Have you ever conducted or discussed official NASA or government business with anyone at the Office of Science Technology Policy (OSTP) using a personal or non-government email account? If so, please indicate who you spoke with, when the conversation occurred, and what was discussed.
6. Have you ever conducted or discussed official NASA or government business with Deputy Administrator Lori Garver using a personal or non-government email account? If so, please indicate when the conversation occurred and what was discussed
7. To your knowledge, did former Chief of Staff George Whitesides ever use a personal email account to conduct agency business?
8. If any of these officials or others not listed used personal email accounts for official NASA business, what was the purpose of all of these secret communications?
9. Is the use of personal email accounts considered an acceptable practice in this administration?
I would appreciate your prompt answers to these questions as the Senate considers your promotion to the Department of Energy.