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NASA watchdog’s work scrutinized

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Did someone steal a ring off the finger of one of the dead Columbia astronauts?

No evidence is conclusive one way or the other, according to long-secret documents detailing a quest by the Texas Rangers, FBI and NASA to get to the bottom of a claim from a funeral home worker who helped in the disaster recovery in 2003.

The man told police a ring disappeared from the body of astronaut Laurel Clark in the chaotic hours after Columbia broke apart trying to return to the Earth and the spaceship’s wreckage rained down across a large swath of rural Texas and Louisiana.

Kept quiet for four years now, some details about the case are trickling out in documents related to an ongoing investigation into whether NASA Inspector General Robert W. Cobb has diligently done his job as agency watchdog.

Questions about the missing ring have become part of an intensifying political battle in Washington between NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and influential members of Congress who want Cobb fired. The ring will come up Thursday in Cobb’s testimony before Congress.

The Texas Rangers’ official investigation report and other documents Florida Today reviewed detail how Texas and Washington authorities tried for weeks but failed to find evidence of a crime, or a ring.

NASA’s photographic experts determined Clark was not wearing a ring when she donned her gloves moments before the shuttle began its ill-fated re-entry Feb. 1, 2003.

“It became clear that there was no ring on the finger of the astronaut and, therefore, there was no credible evidence of a theft,” Cobb wrote in testimony to Congress in preparation for Thursday’s hearing. “Public suggestion that persons involved in the recovery effort were involved in such a heinous crime would have been most inappropriate.”

One recovery worker told police he saw a ring that later vanished. Investigators disagreed about whether photos taken during the recovery showed a ring. Dozens of other witnesses were questioned and nobody else reported actually seeing a ring though several had heard talk of it.

NASA experts concluded “all pictorial data was consistent and indicated no evidence that a ring was present.”

Cobb suggested the case be closed, and the other law enforcement agencies involved complied.

The Rangers had been preparing to release a Crime Stoppers report to the media but did not at Cobb’s request. A subsequent investigation into Cobb’s work questioned whether that decision and others were made based on the facts of the case or the inspector general’s desire to protect NASA and his friend, former administrator Sean O’Keefe.

Congressional complaints prompted an investigation from the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency, a group whose duties include independent reviews of the work federal agencies’ inspectors general do.

That investigation found Cobb berated and cursed at employees and did not report or release information about wrongdoing that might embarrass NASA or O’Keefe.

While the council found Cobb broke no rules or laws and could not prove an actual conflict of interest, investigators said Cobb’s behavior in some cases fueled an appearance of a conflict of interest because he had grown too close to O’Keefe.


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