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GAO said to be investigating waste at NASA under outgoing chief

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The investigative arm of Congress is looking into Sean O'Keefe's tenure as NASA chief, including whether he misused government airplanes and went on too many expensive getaways with underlings, former and current senior NASA officials say.

The focus of the Government Accountability Office investigation is not fraud, but waste, one of the four NASA officials said. The four -- two still with NASA, two recently departed -- asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. Two said they had been questioned by the GAO.

A top GAO investigator, George Ogilvie, declined to comment.

O'Keefe said last night that he was unaware of the investigation and that he has checked with NASA's inspector general, who also knew of no such probe.

He defended his use of government airplanes as a normal, necessary part of his job and said there were no abuses.

O'Keefe is leaving NASA after three years as the space agency's administrator and will become chancellor of Louisiana State University's main campus Monday. Late yesterday, he held a news conference on campus to discuss the reported GAO probe.

When they hired him late last year, university officials praised him for his budget-conscious management skills.

Earlier in the day, NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone declined to comment, saying it would not be ''proper or appropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation."

The officials familiar with the investigation said that one area of interest to the GAO was O'Keefe's costly penchant for traveling on government airplanes, instead of flying commercially.

As a ''basic principle," government employees are asked to use commercial flights, one of the officials said. But O'Keefe ''never, ever travels without going on a NASA airplane," one of a half-dozen small jets the space agency shares with other agencies, another official said. To justify the flights, O'Keefe often would ''fill the planes with ballast," the official said; that is, other employees who might not have a need to travel.

''A lot of the times, at the last minute, Sean would be looking for people to put on the plane. We would call it baggage," an official said.

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