NASA says that when their administrator whispered sweet nothings about Tom DeLay in front of an audience, it wasn't really an endorsement.
Five days after NASA administrator Michael Griffin urged a Houston audience to keep U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay in office, a spokesman denied Wednesday that Griffin had made a formal campaign endorsement.
"The space program has had no better friend in its entire existence than Tom DeLay," Griffin said Friday of DeLay's legislative support of the agency. "He's still with us and we need to keep him there."
With DeLay present, Griffin spoke at the annual Space Center Rotary Club of Houston's nonprofit National Award for Space Achievement Foundation gala.
Griffin had no intention of soliciting votes for the 11-term lawmaker, NASA spokesman Dean Acosta said.
"He did not make an endorsement and will not get involved in any political campaigns," Acosta said. "If his words of thanks to Tom DeLay were misconstrued as an endorsement, then he regrets that."
Under the Hatch Act, executive branch employees such as Griffin are permitted to express an opinion, campaign and make speeches for or against candidates in partisan elections — when they are off-duty.
The black-tie awards dinner at which Griffin made his remarks was held after regular working hours, but Griffin was representing the space agency and giving an award to a NASA employee, astronaut Eileen Collins.
Griffin's travel to Houston from Washington, D.C., for the dinner was paid by NASA rather than the Rotary Club, said event organizer Floyd Bennett of the United Space Alliance.
The independent Office of Special Counsel, which administers the Hatch Act, will investigate the matter, spokesman Loren Smith said.
Employees who violate the Hatch Act can be removed from office, according to the Office of Special Counsel, or suspended without pay.