NASA IG Finds Parkinson Violated Advisory Committee Rules in LightSquared Case, But Not Intentionally

NASA IG Finds Parkinson Violated Advisory Committee Rules in LightSquared Case, But Not Intentionally

NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released the results of an investigation into whether Brad Parkinson and others on the government’s GPS advisory board violated conflict of interest rules when reviewing LightSquared’s proposal to build a broadband system that might interfere with GPS.  The OIG found that Parkinson did violate the conflict of interest rules, but did not do so intentionally.  The report faults NASA’s Office of General Counsel and the board’s executive director for not advising Parkinson sooner that it might be a problem.

Parkinson is credited as being “the father” of the GPS navigation satellite system and is Vice Chairman of the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board.  NASA provides administrative support for the interagency board.  Board members are not compensated, but must submit financial disclosure forms that are reviewed by NASA’s Office of General Counsel to ensure members do not have financial conflicts of interest.  Board members also are briefed on their responsibilities to avoid conflicts of interest on “particular matters” while serving.

The OIG found that Parkinson owns “a substantial amount” of stock in Trimble Navigation, a manufacturer of GPS units.  By signing a letter along with the chairman of the advisory board in August 2011 to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging that LightSquared’s application be denied, the OIG found that he violated the conflict of interest rules because Trimble’s business could suffer if the application was granted.  Trimble had warned investors of that potential outcome in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

Lightsquared later complained and asked the NASA OIG to investigate if Parkinson or any other Board member violated the conflict of interest rules.  The OIG report says that it presented its preliminary findings to the Department of Justice, but it “declined to open a criminal investigation.”  

The OIG found that Parkinson had properly disclosed his holdings of Trimble stock and did not fault Parkinson “for not immediately recognizing that what he viewed as a general matter of public policy concerning the efficacy of the country’s existing GPS network was a ‘particular matter’ under the statute that he should avoid.”  Instead, the report faults NASA’s Office of General Counsel (OGC) for not overseeing the advisory board’s activities sufficiently to determine the potential for a conflict of interest and warning Parkinson earlier than it did to recuse himself.    It also faults the advisory board’s executive director who it says “could have acted more diligently.”  NASA’s OGC did advise Parkinson and four other board members in November 2011 to recuse themselves with regard to LightSquared matters and they complied.

LightSquared’s proposal to build a hybrid satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband network was attacked from many quarters because it would use frequencies adjacent to those used for, and could interfere with, GPS.   The company countered that the FCC assigned those frequencies and it complied with every FCC requirement; any interference problems were because the GPS receiver manufacturers did not design them correctly.   The FCC ultimately denied the company’s application and LightSquared filed for bankruptcy in May 2012.


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