Controversial NASA Attorney
Advising Columbia Commission
By Karen Masterson
Copyright 2003
Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A lawyer who devised ways for NASA to avoid requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act is again working with the agency, this time as legal counsel to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Bill Sikora, a longtime lawyer for NASA, was admonished in 1992 for writing a 1989 memorandum that reportedly instructed NASA employees to use yellow stick-on notes when annotating documents, then directing workers to mix up the stick-ons, making the notes indiscernible in the event they are forcibly made public through a Freedom of Information Act request. Under the law, the public may gain access to government records that are not related to national security. NASA's administrator later called the memo "ill-conceived" and said it resulted from "poor judgment," according to several published sources.

Sikora's memo, part of which was outlined in an article published in a 1992 edition of Columbia Journalism Review, a journalism industry magazine, also suggested that employees destroy unnecessary notes and avoid retaining drafts of documents. Notes that must be kept should be rewritten to minimize any negative impact they may have, should they be disclosed, Sikora counseled. Sikora also discouraged cross-referencing to other NASA documents, so to avoid giving the public context, which would only enhance the information's value.

Rep. Howard Wolpe, a Michigan Democrat who chaired the investigations and oversight panel of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in 1992, discovered the memo while preparing for a hearing on a project, long since abandoned, that would have put a nuclear-powered space station on the moon.

Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, said Thursday he worried that Sikora's participation in the four-month investigation -- during which media organizations and other groups have sought hundreds of records using the Freedom of Information Act -- would hurt the panel's credibility.

"Because of the importance of this investigation, the American people must have full confidence in the ... board or the final report will lack credibility," Lampson said. The investigative panel, led by retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman, is set to deliver its conclusions by late July.

Board spokeswoman Laura Brown confirmed that Sikora, a NASA employee assigned to Glenn Research Center in Ohio, is one of several lawyers who has been helping the board with legal issues in Houston and Washington, including advising it on compliance with FOIA requests.

"He's a fabulous guy and has an enormous amount of integrity," Brown said.

Regarding the memo incident, Brown said: "It happened a long time ago. We don't have a lot of information, other than the recollection of people, about what happened at the time." She added that the board was unaware of the incident until she was contacted by the Houston Chronicle.

She said Sikora declined the Chronicle's request for an interview.

When the memo was first discovered, government watchdog groups were outraged.

"It was a how-to for NASA officials to evade the disclosure requirements of the FOIA," Steven Aftergood, with the Federation of American Scientists, said Thursday.

He said NASA is "better than some agencies and worse than others in terms of FOIA compliance." But he added that NASA is put in a tough place, because it has a lot of private companies, including foreign companies, attempting to gather technological and contract-related information for competition reasons.

In 1992, the Legal Times reported that NASA officials had recommended that administrative action be taken against Sikora and his boss, Larry Ross, director of the research center. It was unclear what came of the recommended actions. NASA officials could not be reached Thursday evening.

Chronicle reporter Patty Reinert contributed to this story.



This Site Served by TheHostPros