Is NASA’s Chief Corrupt?

Recent headlines might lead you to think so, but the real story of Charles Bolden’s phone call to Marathon Oil is more complicated.

Charles Bolden


Back in June, the Orlando Sentinel reported that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was up to something fishy. NASA was at work on an exciting new algae fuel project called OMEGA (Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae). But it seemed Bolden was trying to slow down OMEGA. The Sentinel claimed it was because he was advised to do so by Marathon Oil, a company with a competing biofuels project–and a company in which Bolden held stock worth up to $1,000,000. “It definitely does not pass the smell test,” the director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics told the Sentinel. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) began an investigation.

We got the results of that investigation yesterday, which has since been making headlines in science sections. “Investigator Says NASA Chief Erred in Call,” wrote the New York Times. NASA administrator Charlie Bolden rapped for violating ethics pledge,” says the Sentinel. Laboratory Equipment journal went for the old standby: “NASA, We have a problem.” Most quoted a highlight of the report, an email from one NASA employee who griped about his boss: “This is frankly the worst of NASA, and I don’t like it. It is ‘good ole boy’ networks at it’s [sic] worst and not worthy of NASA and this administration.” Skim the stories and you’d get the sense that Bolden was up to something seriously corrupt, and that he might be on his way out.

In fact, the full story told in the report is more complicated. After interviewing 15 NASA employees and reviewing hundreds of emails and other documents, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General actually concluded that Bolden wasn’t up to anything crooked. “In sum,” wrote the report’s authors, “we found no evidence that Bolden or Marathon received a present or promised financial benefit as a result of Bolden’s call. We also found that the information Bolden received from Marathon did not cause him to withhold funding to the OMEGA project.”

Bolden seems to have had genuine doubts about the OMEGA project, and wanted to call folks at Marathon, whose opinion he trusted. An internal email from a Marathon exec named Linda Capuano shows she was expecting Borden to invite Marathon to participate in the OMEGA project, and planned to decline. “Capuano said she began her conversation with Bolden under the assumption that they were going to discuss possible participation by Marathon in the OMEGA project,” write the report authors. “Instead, Bolden asked for her views and insights on algae-based fuels in general.” An email that the NASA OIG obtained squares with Capuano’s statement to them.

In his contact with Marathon, Bolden could have run afoul of some serious laws, including a felony criminal statute that can lead to up to five years of incarceration. But the NASA report absolves him of that: “Although he owned stock in Marathon, there is no logical scenario in which Bolden’s decisions regarding OMEGA would affect the value of that stock,” it says.

Ultimately, the OIG report concludes that Bolden violated an ethics pledge which imposed a two-year ban on talking to his former employer. Bolden readily conceded that the contact was inappropriate, and “received supplemental ethics counseling.” The Inspector General reserved much harsher words for NASA’s Office of General Council, which Bolden had informed of his contact with Marathon–and which told him it was no big deal.


The full report, which is available here (PDF), is a fun read for both space and government accountability geeks alike.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.