Despite porn pledge, scientists accused of studying ‘anatomy’

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Despite a pledge last year to crack down on porn snooping among its federal employees and contractors - including one former executive who accessed illicit websites on at least 331 days - the National Science Foundation is facing renewed questions about whether workers are still surfing for smut on the government’s time.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, told top NSF officials in a letter Tuesday that he’s heard from three unnamed whistleblowers about continuing porn problems at the foundation.

He also said he’s concerned that senior executives caught looking at pornography are being punished more harshly than lower-level employees.

“One of the whistleblowers that approached my staff raised concerns about possible disparities in disciplinary actions at NSF when it comes to viewing pornography,” Mr. Grassley wrote in the letter to the NSF’s acting director, Cora B. Marrett.

“In particular, my staff was advised that higher-level employees are treated differently than lower-level employees for the same or similar offense.”

But NSF spokeswoman Maria Zacharias on Wednesday said the foundation handed down appropriate disciplinary measures within the guidelines of the foundation’s administrative system. She said the pornography problems, which surfaced in 2008, have been fixed.

“There have been zero instances,” she said.

The Washington Times last year obtained investigative case memos by the NSF’s inspector general that laid bare the extent of the porn problems.

In one 2008 case, a former senior executive who had spent at least 331 days looking at pornography offered, among other explanations, the fact that his online chats with nude or partially clad women helped provide a living to impoverished women overseas. That official later retired.

In a separate case, also in 2008, investigators found 5,297 image and video files on an employee’s work computer, with more than 360 containing inappropriate images and videos lasting up to a half-hour long. They also found five slide shows containing pictures of nude women. Once caught, the employee received a 10-day suspension, records show.

NSF officials have said they’ve since enacted more rigorous computer training and tightened controls to filter out inappropriate Internet addresses from the sites that employees can access from their work computers.

Officials at the inspector general’s office last year said the foundation appears to have fixed the systemic problems that allowed workers to look at pornography on the job.

Nonetheless, Mr. Grassley said in his letter, which was first reported by Politico, that he remains concerned. He said he has heard that the porn problem still exists and told NSF officials that “despite your representations and assurances, NSF staff continues to engage in inappropriate behavior.”

“More specifically, three whistleblowers have now provided me with credible evidence supporting the allegation that NSF employees continue to access pornography,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Grassley inquired about NSF’s use of the Blue Coat WebFilter, a database that logs attempts to access pornographic or gambling websites, according to the letter. He said a whistleblower told him that NSF “rushed to turn it on” only after getting an earlier letter from Mr. Grassley last month.

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