Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) announced late Monday that he had placed a hold on the nomination of Beth Robinson to become undersecretary at the Department of Energy, citing issues he has with her tenure as NASA’s chief financial officer, in particular work at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
“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 in the statement. “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.”
Vitter’s specific concern is that NASA is withholding $125 million in funds for SLS work to cover contract termination liability costs. “How do you explain that withholding these funds appears to be using of termination liability as a tool to slow progress of SLS?” Vitter asked in his letter to Robinson, included in the release.
Vitter is also concerned that NASA is delaying work on the SLS and Orion programs (both of which make some use of Michoud, although much of their development takes place elsewhere) and disproportionately cutting funding for those programs as it allocates budget cuts required under sequestration. “Are you intentionally trying to kill SLS and Orion? Why are you implementing sequestration in this biased manner?” he asks, requesting various operating plans submitted by NASA to Congress for fiscal year 2013. In the final operating plan approved by Congress in August, SLS and Orion got a combined $2.88 billion, down less than four percent from the $2.98 billion requested for them in the administration’s original FY13 budget request and 5.5 percent from the pre-sequester and pre-rescission amount of $3.05 billion in the final appropriations bill.
Vitter also asked Robinson a series of questions about whether she or NASA officials used non-government email, citing the use of personal email accounts by EPA officials to discuss official business. The letter offers no evidence of similar practices by NASA officials beyond a statement by Vitter that “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.”