Pornography at the National Science Foundation

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The Washington Times is not a publication I ordinarily read or have any confidence in. Nevertheless, the allegations made in this article appear to be accurate:

… The budget request doesn’t state the nature or number of the misconduct cases, but records obtained by The Times through the Freedom of Information Act laid bare the extent of the well-publicized porn problem inside the government-backed foundation.

For instance, one senior executive spent at least 331 days looking at pornography on his government computer and chatting online with nude or partially clad women without being detected, the records show.

When finally caught, the NSF official retired. He even offered, among other explanations, a humanitarian defense, suggesting that he frequented the porn sites to provide a living to the poor overseas women. Investigators put the cost to taxpayers of the senior official’s porn surfing at between $13,800 and about $58,000.

“He explained that these young women are from poor countries and need to make money to help their parents and this site helps them do that,” investigators wrote in a memo. …

…. The foundation’s inspector general uncovers scientific misconduct that can force the return of misused grant money to the government but told Congress it was diverted from that mission by the porn cases.

The office was unable to immediately provide an estimate of how much money the projected decline in investigative recoveries will cost taxpayers. According to congressional reports, overall investigative recoveries by the watchdog agency totaled more than $2 million for the year ending March 31.

The pornography problem came to light earlier this year, when the inspector general’s office published short summaries of several recent cases in a semiannual report to Congress.

The report caught the attention of Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, who launched an inquiry that generated unwanted media attention on the online activities of employees at the foundation.

The newly obtained documents provide fresh evidence that the problem wasn’t just an embarrassment: It was expensive and often went undetected for long periods of time.

The names of all of the employees targeted in the pornography cases were redacted from the more than 120 pages of investigative documents released to The Times. Names were withheld because none of the employees was subject to criminal prosecution, recent civil court action or debarment.

The documents don’t include cases that the foundation examined internally without the inspector general’s involvement.

“The employees who were investigated were disciplined in one way or another,” Ms. Topousis said, adding that she could not comment on individual disciplinary actions.

One foundation employee paid an unspecified sum last year after investigators found that during a three-week period in June 2008, the worker perused hundreds of pornographic Web sites during work hours. That employee received a 10-day suspension.

In an official notice of the decision, the foundation called the conduct “unprofessional and unacceptable,” but also noted the employee’s work history and lack of any previous disciplinary actions.

As for the unnamed “senior executive” who spent at least 331 days looking at pornography at work, investigators said his proclivity for pornography was common knowledge among several co-workers.

“At the same time, employees were generally reluctant to make any official report or complaint because the misconduct involved a senior staff member and employees feared that they would suffer in some form of complaining,” the investigators later wrote in a summary of the case.

Another employee in a different case was caught with hundreds of pictures, videos and even PowerPoint slide shows containing pornography. Asked by an investigator whether he had completed any government work on a day when a significant amount of pornography was downloaded, the employee responded, “Um, I can’t remember,” according to records. …

The NSF March 2009 Semiannual Report To Congress describes employee pornography concerns starting at page 39.

–Ann Bartow

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