Elizabeth Robinson, the woman President Barack Obama has named to make the Energy Department’s oft-criticized contracting more efficient, is leaving behind a trail of spending questions in her past job as NASA’s chief financial officer.
A Washington Guardian and Washington Times review of NASA inspector general reports finds the space agency struggled to achieve austerity under Robinson’s financial leadership, as cost overruns grew sixfold from $50 million in 2009 to $315 million in 2012.
“Cost increases and schedule delays on NASA’s projects are longstanding issues for the agency,” the space agency’s internal watchdog reported last year.
Ongoing changes in the agency’s mission also led to billions being spent on projects that were later canceled, such as the Constellation Program and the Ares V launch vehicle that were designed to replace the space shuttle. Taxpayers spent an estimated $10 billion on shuttle replacement before it was scrapped in 2010.
The agency also has been dinged for smaller amounts of wasteful spending that provided some simple yet powerful symbols for taxpayer frustration.
Audits conducted during Robinson’s tenure as CFO uncovered that NASA spent an average of $66 per person per day for light refreshments at conferences, shelled out $1.5 million to develop a video game to replicate astronauts’ experiences and reimbursed employees $1.4 million for tuition dating to 2006 for degrees unrelated to their NASA jobs.
Robinson did not return a call seeking comment, and NASA, White House and Energy Department officials did not return repeated phone calls and email messages seeking comment on Robinson’s track record as NASA’s chief financial officer.
Obama nominated Robinson, a former White House budget official, this month to the job of Energy Department undersecretary for management and performance, filling one of the top jobs under new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. In her role, Robinson will be responsible for improving the management and efficiency of the department’s contracting and programs, including the much-criticized environmental management efforts involving the cleanup of old nuclear sites, Moniz told employees last week.
The energy secretary emphasized that Robinson’s role was specifically to improve the department’s contracting, spending and program management. “Right, wrong or indifferent in terms of how we are viewed, we’ve got to pick up our game in terms of management and performance,” Moniz told employees.
Separately, NASA’s own website credits Robinson for her stewardship of the budget.
“Through her leadership, Robinson ensures the financial health of the organization, including responsibility for ensuring that NASA resources are effectively employed toward the achievement of NASA’s strategic plan,” the NASA biography for its CFO says.
NASA’s inspector general, however, routinely gave the space agency poor marks for efficiency during Robinson’s tenure. An audit this spring, in fact, found NASA didn’t even know how much it had spent on information technology security and couldn’t account for all of its computer equipment because it was so decentralized in spending.
“While other federal agencies are moving toward a centralized IT structure under which a senior manager has ultimate decision authority over IT budgets and resources, NASA continues to operate under a decentralized model that relegates decision making about critical IT issues to numerous individuals across the agency,” the inspector general reported in June. “As a result, NASA’s current IT governance model weakens accountability and does not ensure that IT assets across the agency are cost effective and secure.”
NASA officials promised to improve the IT spending after the stinging report, but often have tried to justify their cost overruns by blaming the unique challenges of exploring space.
Robinson did, however, get good grades for record-keeping. The NASA inspector general said the agency’s financial documents were organized and complete — a marked improvement from before her tenure when inspectors said they often couldn’t audit the department because of problems with paperwork.
Although NASA’s effort to replace the Hubble Space Telescope with the Webb telescope has run millions of dollars over budget, the inspector general did credit the agency for spending a $75 million Recovery Act grant wisely to speed along the project and keep 450 people employed.
Still, NASA’s overall financial and contract management got poor grades in several audits during Robinson’s tenure.
“The agency’s cost-tracking processes cannot account for all conference-related costs and that planners did not consistently conduct required cost comparisons of possible conference sites,” one report from this month concluded.
An overview of NASA financial management in September concluded, “Consistently managing the agency’s science and space exploration projects to meet cost, schedule and performance goals has remained elusive.”
A report from April excoriated the agency for awarding a $42 million contract for energy savings at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, saying officials couldn’t verify the cost savings claimed by the contractor but nonetheless paid out the money.
Robinson will face equally daunting challenges at the Energy Department, which was battered during Secretary Steven Chu’s tenure for everything from poor security at nuclear laboratories to poor vetting of clean-energy loan recipients such as the Solyndra solar panel maker that later failed at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers.