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Authorship taints critical NASA letter

Last July, a NASA official wrote to the University of Idaho asking about allegations that a researcher had compromised the security and safety of national space research.

The letter raised the possibility that the researcher had provided sensitive information to “unauthorized sources” – perhaps even “foreign agents.”

The letter leaves out some history, though. It doesn’t note that the researcher in question, Kenneth Hass, had provided information to a UI auditor that landed his boss in hot water.

And it omits the fact that Hass’ boss, Gary Maki, apparently authored the letter himself – wrote a draft, sent it to a colleague at NASA and asked that it be returned “close to the way it is” so he could take it to UI President Tim White, according to UI records.

Hass considers it part of a pattern of retaliation by Maki and others against him for reporting his concerns. He and his wife, Martha, who also worked for UI, have sued the university.

“There’s kind of a veiled threat (in the letter) that if the university doesn’t do something about me, they’re risking their NASA funding,” Hass said in a recent interview.

Neither Maki nor Pen-Shu Yeh, the NASA program coordinator whose signature appears on the letter, would comment. During an interview last month, UI President Tim White acknowledged that he’d seen the letter but wouldn’t discuss it further, because it involves a personnel matter and a legal one.

Hass has remained on the job at the university’s Center for Advanced Microelectronics and Biomolecular Research in Post Falls during the 10 months since the date of the letter. While he considers the alleged retaliation a form of punishment, he acknowledges that UI has not formally disciplined him about the security concerns mentioned in the letter.

The letter – addressed to Maki – asks about allegations that Hass was improperly monitoring sensitive information on Maki’s computer, including writing a program that tracked everything Maki did, and says Hass had proposed a chip design that may have failed in orbit.

“It would help to have some assurance from you on these issues,” it says.

Hass denies the allegations in the letter. He says he only forwarded information commonly available on his department network. A top UI administrator told Hass that the university would send a letter to NASA “clarifying” his role in the audit, Hass said.

In their lawsuit, Kenneth and Martha Hass allege that their superiors and the university administration retaliated against them and defamed them after they raised concerns with the UI auditor starting in February 2005.

The auditor eventually concluded that Maki and others at CAMBR had deliberately and improperly used university resources to benefit private companies in which they had a financial interest.

The suit claims Maki and Chuck Hatch, the former vice president for research at UI, tried to have Kenneth Hass fired. Martha Hass worked for CAMBR at the time, but is now an assistant lab manager elsewhere in the Post Falls research park.

UI has filed a response to the suit in Kootenai County District Court, in which it denies the central allegations.

Hass obtained the NASA letter and an e-mail message from Maki to Yeh under Idaho’s public records laws. Both are dated July 11, 2006. Maki’s e-mail refers to an attached “memo draft which should come back to me.”

The attachment itself was not released.

“I am not sure why (Hass) has turned from a loyal trustworthy individual to one who seems determined to bring me and CAMBR if necessary down,” the e-mail to Yeh reads. “I am very worried that he may intentionally impact a chip design and cause it to fail outright or worse, introduce errors that may be apparent only in flight. …

“The most likely event is that (Hass’) information stopped at the auditor, but we do not know that for sure. The more important issue for me is to determine if we have an individual intent on doing harm to CAMBR and NASA programs,” Maki wrote.

Maki also asked Yeh to return his draft “close to the way it is,” and wrote that if she did, the university president would have no choice but to act.

Hass completed his doctoral work this year, while continuing to work at CAMBR. He says the allegations could take a huge toll on his research career, which includes a relationship with NASA dating back to 1996.

Hass said he was particularly troubled by the suggestion that he might sabotage a mission.

“That’s the allegation that really hurts, because as an engineer I take a great deal of pride in my work, and to suggest I would intentionally produce bad engineering was personally offensive to me,” he said.

Hass said he believes UI’s response to the CAMBR audit and other criticisms raised about the center has been to try to limit bad publicity, rather than get to the bottom of the way the center operates.

He applied for a faculty position in recent months and suspects he was shot down by administrators.

Hass was named one of three finalists for the position before the dean of the engineering college sent the hiring committee a letter telling them that Hass’ candidacy “does not merit consideration,” according to one source close to the situation and a copy of an e-mail message obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

In the e-mail message, the dean said that Hass’ candidacy involved “major” conflicts of interest, “a great concern voiced by the upper administration.”

The chairman of the hiring committee, David Egolf, resigned as chairman over what he termed the compromised independence of the group.

Kenneth Hass says he’s not sure where his career will go from here. He’s not formally heard that he won’t be hired at UI, and he says he wants to pursue his field of study as a researcher.

“I like the work that I do, but I’m not sure how badly my career has been damaged at the University of Idaho,” he said.

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