CAPE CANAVERAL – Did someone steal a ring off the finger ofone of the dead Columbia astronauts?
There is no conclusive evidence one way or the other,according to long-secret documents detailing a quest by the Texas Rangers, theFBI and NASA to get to the bottom of a claim by a funeral home worker whohelped in the disaster recovery in 2003.
The man told police a ring disappeared from the body ofastronaut Laurel Clark in the chaotic hours after Columbia broke apart tryingto return to the Earth and the spaceship's wreckage rained down across a largeswath of rural Texas and Louisiana.
Kept quiet for four years now, some details about the caseare trickling out in documents related to the ongoing investigation intowhether NASA Inspector General Robert W. Cobb has diligently done his job as anagency watchdog.
The questions about the missing ring have become part of anintensifying political battle in Washington between NASA Administrator MikeGriffin and influential members of Congress who want Cobb fired. The ring willcome up in Cobb's testimony before Congress on Thursday.
The Texas Rangers' official investigation report and otherdocuments reviewed by FLORIDA TODAY detail how authorities in Texas andWashington tried for weeks but failed to ever find evidence of crime – or aring. NASA's photographic experts determined Clark was not wearing a ring whenshe donned her gloves moments before the shuttle began its ill-fated re-entryon Feb. 1, 2003.
"It became clear that there was no ring on the fingerof the astronaut and, therefore, there was no credible evidence of atheft," Cobb wrote in written testimony to Congress in preparation for thehearing Thursday. "Public suggestion that persons involved in the recoveryeffort were involved in such a heinous crime would have been mostinappropriate."
One recovery worker told police he saw a ring that latervanished. Investigators disagreed about whether photos taken during therecovery showed a ring. Dozens of other witnesses were questioned and nobodyelse reported actually seeing a ring, though several had heard of it.
NASA experts concluded "all pictorial data wasconsistent and indicated no evidence that a ring was present."
Cobb suggested the case be closed, and the other lawenforcement agencies involved complied. The Rangers had been preparing torelease a Crime Stoppers report to the media but did not at Cobb's request.
A subsequent investigation into Cobb's work questionedwhether that decision and others were made based on the facts of the case orthe inspector general's desire to protect NASA and his friend, formeradministrator Sean O'Keefe.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, and other leaders inCongress say NASA cannot afford a less-than-aggressive effort by the inspectorgeneral to identify and expose problems and wrongdoing. They have askedPresident Bush to fire Cobb.
Congressional complaints prompted an investigation by thePresident's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, a group whose duties includeindependent reviews of the work done by federal agencies' inspectors general.
That investigation found Cobb berated and cursed atemployees and did not report or release information about wrongdoing that mightembarrass NASA or O'Keefe. The investigators looked into allegations Cobb tippedoff O'Keefe and top agency lawyers during probes.
Investigators took issue with Cobb not reporting the allegedtheft or loss of national security data from NASA. They also faulted Cobb forstopping the release of the Crime Stoppers report in the ring case.
While the council found Cobb broke no rules or laws andcould not prove an actual conflict of interest, investigators said Cobb'sbehavior in some cases fueled an appearance of a conflict of interest becausehe had grown too close to O'Keefe.
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