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Astronaut Danny Olivas is one of UTEP’s most celebrated alums. A bungled contract shattered their relationship.

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A 10-month investigation by El Paso Matters shows that UTEP was slow to answer Olivas’ concerns and those responses were incomplete and inaccurate at times. The investigation found that errors by the university’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects went undiscovered for years, in part because the university’s internal controls didn’t call for regular financial reviews of such contracts. Efforts to fully recover the $337,000 error may not be successful.

When he was an undergraduate engineering student at UTEP, Danny Olivas learned that the way to investigate failures was persistent questioning.

“I found it really fascinating to understand how things broke,” Olivas said. He learned a simple mantra when conducting root cause investigations. “You ask the five whys. If you go back five whys, usually you start getting closer to the root of what the real problem was.”

That inquisitiveness served Olivas well when he became an astronaut. He was one of the investigators charged by NASA with understanding how the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003, killing seven astronauts he considered friends. Olivas believes he was spared a similar fate aboard Atlantis in 2007 because repeated questioning about how to repair damage to that shuttle led to him making a spacewalk to repair a critical thermal blanket.

Olivas’ success as an astronaut made him one of the University of Texas at El Paso’s best-known graduates. In 2006, he was given UTEP’s Distinguished Alumni Award, the university’s highest honor for a former student. 

Before becoming an astronaut, Danny Olivas grew up in El Paso, graduating from Burges High School and the University of Texas at El Paso. (Justin Hamel/El Paso Matters)

In 2013, three years after he left NASA, UTEP announced with great fanfare that Olivas was returning to the university in a part-time role to lead a new space safety program.  

Five years later, Olivas began to ask repeated questions about an error that cost Texas taxpayers $337,000 in a $5 million contract he brought to the university. “It’s the way my brain is wired. I’m constantly asking the question, ‘why?’” he said.

The former astronaut grew increasingly frustrated when he felt ignored or stonewalled. He kept pushing. He filed a whistleblower complaint. He went to the media. He went to the Texas state auditor. And he kept pressing UTEP officials for answers.

UTEP spokesman Victor Arreola said officials provided Olivas with the information he sought. “Mistakes were made and corrected. Information was provided. Just because some disagree with the facts does not mean the University has engaged in malfeasance,” he said.

But after more than a year of repeatedly asking “why,” Olivas felt he had received few answers about what went wrong with the contract that was one of the centerpieces of his work at UTEP. He said the university’s president and chief academic officer both told him to stop asking questions and move on from his concerns.

So he quit.

“I think the university sees me as being a troublemaker. And I’m not. I’ve tried to do the right thing for the students. … I saw something that didn’t seem right. And I said something about it,” Olivas said.

And the relationship between UTEP and one of its most celebrated alums shattered.

A 10-month investigation by El Paso Matters shows that UTEP was slow to answer Olivas’ concerns and those responses were incomplete and inaccurate at times. The investigation found that errors by the university’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects went undiscovered for years, in part because the university’s internal controls didn’t call for regular financial reviews of such contracts. Efforts to fully recover the $337,000 error may not be successful.

From El Paso to space

Olivas was born in California in 1966 and moved with his family to El Paso as a child, graduating from Burges High School. After initially heading to a small Wisconsin college to play football, Olivas enrolled at UTEP and majored in mechanical engineering, graduating in 1989.

He moved to the Houston area after graduation to work for Dow Chemical and went on to earn a master’s in engineering at the University of Houston in 1993 and a Ph.D. at Rice in 1996.

Olivas became an astronaut with NASA in 1998 and began preparing to fly aboard the space shuttle. But he took himself off mission status in 2003 so he could participate in the investigation of the causes of the ill-fated Columbia mission. A piece of foam damaged the left wing heat shield on liftoff. When Columbia was returning to Earth, hot atmospheric gases penetrated the heat shield, causing the shuttle to break apart over Texas and killing all seven astronauts aboard. 

In June 2007, Olivas finally made it into space aboard Atlantis. En route to the International Space Station, the crew discovered that a thermal blanket on the port orbital maneuvering system had been peeled back, leaving a two-square-foot triangular gap.

Amid fears of a repeat of the Columbia disaster, Olivas was selected to do the repair spacewalk. After extensive discussions, NASA decided to use a surgical stapler from the crew medical kit to fix the problem.

That solution came from the mission’s flight surgeon in Houston, not the scientists, engineers and astronauts studying the problem. Olivas said that reinforced for him the importance of encouraging diversity of thought.

“Because at the table of problems that NASA was trying to solve, they had a welcoming environment for all who had a vested interest in the mission’s success to be active participants. But it also took the bravery of someone who didn’t necessarily have all the technical expertise in the subject at hand, brave enough to raise their hand and say, ‘I have an idea’,” Olivas said in a 2019 TEDx event at UTEP.

Danny Olivas performed a spacewalk in 2007 to repair damage to the thermal blanket of space shuttle Atlantis. (NASA photo)

Olivas returned to space in August 2009 aboard Discovery. In his two shuttle flights, Olivas logged five spacewalks totaling more than 35 hours. Olivas took several items from his hometown with him into space, including a UTEP T-shirt he wore aboard Atlantis.

Olivas left NASA in 2010 and shuttle flights ended the next year. He worked for Raytheon for a few years, then opened his own accident-investigation consulting company in 2013 in California.

Olivas also was looking for a way to give back to El Paso and UTEP. That opportunity came in August 2013.

Coming back to UTEP

UTEP hired Olivas in a part-time staff role that had him serve as director of a new program called the Center for the Advancement of Space Safety and Mission Assurance Research (CASSMAR). He also would oversee space initiatives on campus. Olivas and his wife, Marie (also a Burges and UTEP graduate), and five children continued to live in California, but he commuted frequently to El Paso.

Olivas persuaded NASA to loan UTEP about 2,000 pounds of debris from Columbia so students could perform ongoing research on the causes of the 2003 disaster. The idea was to learn from past mistakes to make future spaceflight safer. UTEP was the only university with such a collection of Columbia artifacts.

“Dr. Olivas is an outstanding role model for students on our campus and in schools across this region, and we look forward to working with him to enhance UTEP’s growing national reputation for innovative research and leadership in graduate and undergraduate education,” then-UTEP President Diana Natalicio said in a statement welcoming Olivas back to campus in August 2013.

Olivas and CASSMAR originally reported to Roberto Osegueda, UTEP’s vice president of the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects. In March 2019, Olivas and CASSMAR became part of the College of Engineering, reporting to Dean Theresa Maldonado.

Danny Olivas and then-UTEP President Diana Natalicio spoke at a 2013 press conference announcing his return to campus.

In 2014, Olivas found funding for CASSMAR. Jacobs Engineering agreed to enter into a five-year, $5 million contract with UTEP for work at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The contract could be renewed through 2022. Some money from the contract would go to students engaged in Columbia research.

The contract called for UTEP to hire several engineers and scientists with doctorates who would work with Jacobs on a space-safety contract for NASA. Jacobs also would create internships for UTEP students. The agreement allowed Jacobs to work with a minority-serving institution, which was helpful in its contract with NASA. UTEP got a partnership with a major aerospace company that could be beneficial to its students and graduates.

To help run CASSMAR, Olivas turned to Darren Cone, an engineer then working at White Sands Missile Range. Like Olivas, Cone grew up in El Paso. He received a master’s degree in engineering from UTEP. They had worked together on the Columbia investigation.

Danny Olivas wore a T-shirt from UTEP, his alma mater, during his 2007 flight aboard space shuttle Atlantis. (Danny Olivas photo)

UTEP initially hired five engineers and scientists with doctorates to work on the Jacobs contract, and later added a sixth.

The university’s contract administration was immediately plagued by problems, Cone and Olivas said. The newly hired engineers suddenly found their health benefits cut off, for example. Other problems emerged when UTEP started sending interns to Houston to work for Jacobs at the Johnson Space Center.

“Every single one of those was a nightmare. The students weren’t paid on time. There were these issues if they took a holiday when it wasn’t on the UTEP schedule. It was just this bizarre mismatch,” Cone said.

Eventually the problems eased and Jacobs and UTEP continued with the contract. 

The UTEP-Jacobs contract initially called for the company to reimburse the university for the salaries of the engineers hired to work at the Johnson Space Center, plus a markup of 57 percent to cover fringe benefits and overhead costs. That markup rate was raised to 68 percent in November 2017 to account for higher medical insurance costs, officials said.

By the fall of 2017, the fourth year of the contract, all parties seemed happy. UTEP students were presenting their research on Columbia at conferences and getting hired by major firms and government agencies upon graduation. Money called “indirect return” from the Jacobs contract helped provide stipends and travel money for students. 

Then Cone discovered a huge problem.

‘NASA is not happy’

Cone said Manuela Dokie, UTEP’s assistant vice president for research and compliance, told him in November 2017 that she was seeing a significant deficit with the Jacobs contract. Over the years, UTEP had been paying out more for employee salaries and benefits than it had been billing Jacobs. Dokie said she didn’t know why.

University spokesman Arreola said UTEP’s internal controls at that point called for financial review of contracts at the end of the project, which in the case of Jacobs might be 2022.

Darren Cone (UTEP photo)

Cone said he studied the issue over the holiday break and discovered the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects had incorrectly read the contract, causing UTEP to pay the engineers and scientists more than what was being billed to Jacobs since the beginning of the contract in 2014. The university had underbilled Jacobs by more than $200,000, he initially estimated. That number would eventually grow to $337,000. Texas taxpayers bore the cost of that mistake.

An expert on federal grant compliance said the incorrect reading of the contract was a crucial failure.

“Appropriate oversight of a grant or contract relies on abiding by the terms and conditions of the grant or contract,” said Jerry Ashford, editor of Thompson Grants, which provides newsletters and other services on federal grant compliance.

UTEP officials spent months in the summer and fall of 2018 trying to determine what to do about the underbilling, according to emails obtained by El Paso Matters under the Texas Public Information Act.

Olivas and Cone proposed essentially writing off the money to preserve relationships with Jacobs and NASA. But Osegueda wanted to recover the money from Jacobs, they said.

Emails to Jacobs from Nate Robinson, an assistant vice president in Osegueda’s office, show that UTEP asked Jacobs for a lump-sum repayment, which the company rejected.

UTEP and Jacobs then worked on plans to recover the underbilling over multiple years by increasing the markup costs associated with the engineers it hired to work with Jacobs. 

A major risk to the multiyear approach would be employees quitting and not being replaced, making it more difficult to recover the underbilled funds, Robinson warned in an email to Jacobs. Cone and Olivas said they expressed concerns that, faced with higher costs, Jacobs would reduce expenses through employee attrition if possible.

That happened almost immediately, emails show. The number of engineers working on the contract had fallen to four from a high of six by September 2018, then another announced his retirement as UTEP and Jacobs were in negotiations. 

UTEP had nearly come to terms with Jacobs on a two-year recovery plan and then switched to three years after the engineer said he was leaving, Robinson wrote in a Sept. 6, 2018, email to Osegueda.

UTEP’s plans to recover $337,000 it had underbilled Jacobs Engineering ran into difficulty almost immediately.

On Sept. 12, Jacobs sent UTEP new task orders for each of the four people then working on the grant. The task orders issued a total dollar amount that UTEP could bill annually for each of the employees, but didn’t break down how much of the cost was for salary, fringe benefits, UTEP overhead and the recovery fee.

Using payroll records and previous contracts, El Paso Matters estimates that UTEP is charging Jacobs an additional 40 to 45 percent of each employee’s base salary as a means of recovering the multiple years of underbilling.  

Jacobs wasn’t happy with the deal, Cone and Olivas said. They said NASA, the federal agency that contracted the Johnson Space Center work to Jacobs, also was upset.

After the new rates went into effect, “my employees in Houston were calling and texting almost immediately and saying NASA is not happy. Because ultimately they’re footing the bill. Jacobs is just simply going to pass that along to the federal sponsor,” Cone said. “And so when NASA is not happy that means they’re taking money out of some other program or priority they wanted to fund and having to put it into that subcontract because that subcontractor made a mistake.”

Olivas and Cone said UTEP’s problems in managing the Jacobs account could make it more difficult in the future for the university to get contracts with the company or NASA.

Officials with NASA and Jacobs declined to comment on UTEP’s handling of the contract.

UTEP officials acknowledged mistakes in implementing the Jacobs contract, but blamed Cone and Olivas for not catching them sooner. They didn’t identify any other responsible parties by name.

“Danny Olivas and Darren Cone, as (co-principal investigators) and project managers, didn’t notice the discrepancy, in part because they were not reviewing their grant financial activity through the required monthly account reconciliation process,” UTEP spokesman Arreola said.

Cone and Olivas said they regularly reviewed the financial activity with Jacobs. Both men said they’ve received outstanding performance reviews over the years that never mentioned problems with review of financial activity.

They said the amount of information given to principal investigators in the university’s review and reconciliation process is limited and wouldn’t have alerted them to ORSP’s mistaken interpretation of the contract. Olivas and Cone said UTEP was attempting to make them scapegoats for failures in the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects.

Currently, two people are working for UTEP on the Jacobs contract, including one who is expected to retire soon, Olivas said. A third person is on family leave and may not return, he said. That could leave just one or two people left on the contract by later this year.

Arreola said the reduced number of employees is impacting the recovery schedule. “However, our goal is to recover the entire deficit,” he said.

Almost halfway through the three-year recovery plan, UTEP says it has recouped about $130,000 of the $337,000 it had underbilled.     

Questions over Cone’s salary

In the fall of 2018, Olivas was frustrated with the recovery plan put in place, fearful that it jeopardized UTEP’s relationship with Jacobs and NASA. He also wanted to better understand how UTEP had botched the billing on the contract. 

As he and Cone continued investigating problems with the contract, they learned that Cone’s salary had been funded completely for months by state funds, even though the university’s contract with Jacobs required that 30 percent of his salary be paid by that company. UTEP continued to bill Jacobs for its portion of Cone’s salary, about $28,000 over nine months, even though it wasn’t using the money for that purpose. 

In a Nov. 19, 2018, email, Guadalupe Gomez, UTEP’s director of Grants and Contract Accounting, said Osegueda made a decision to not pay Cone with Jacobs money.

Roberto Osegueda/UTEP photo

“Dr. Osegueda already informed us that Darren will not be appointed on the grant but there are still some discrepancies/questions on the (other employees on the Jacobs contract),” she told Marina Rivera, the College of Engineering’s chief administrative officer. Osegueda was copied in the email and didn’t respond.

Cone responded with alarm. UTEP redacted Cone’s response to Gomez’s email in records it provided to El Paso Matters, but Olivas provided an unredacted version.

Cone noted that UTEP was billing Jacobs for part of his salary. “If I am not going to be appointed to that contract as Jacobs intended, what justification does UTEP have to invoice them for the funds? Where would the funds be going otherwise if not toward my appointment?”

UTEP officials didn’t respond to questions on whether Osegueda had, as Gomez stated in her email, instructed that Cone not be paid with funds from the Jacobs contract.

In an interview, Cone said he thought UTEP was using the money from Jacobs intended for his salary to help recover the underbilled funds.

He said Osegueda scheduled a lunch meeting a few days after the email exchange. Cone brought Maldonado, the engineering dean, with him. He said the lunch was pleasant until Maldonado excused herself to go to the restroom.

Cone said Osegueda then pointedly told him that he needed to continue certifying the project invoices each month, including those billing Jacobs for 30 percent of his salary. He said he didn’t respond to the vice president’s instructions at the lunch, but he had no intention of doing so.

“Because I’m aware that I was not being paid against that, I know that we’re sending potentially fraudulent invoices to a federal subcontractor telling them we spent money on something we didn’t spend the money on,” Cone said.

He said that at the end of the lunch, with Maldonado present, Osegueda said, “So we’re clear, this is what’s going to happen, right. You’re going to continue to certify.” 

Maldonado said she wasn’t comfortable with that, Cone said. “He (Osegueda) looked at his phone and didn’t mention it again,” he said.

UTEP declined to make Osegueda available for an interview, but Arreola said “Dr. Osegueda did not provide any instructions on certification” during the lunch.

Maldonado said her recollection of the meeting matched Cone’s. She declined to comment further.

Becoming a whistleblower

In December 2018, Olivas decided to try a new approach to get answers to his questions about the Jacobs contract. He sent an email to the University of Texas System’s Compliance and Ethics Hotline, seeking protection under UT’s whistleblower policy.

“I have been made aware of practices within the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects that I believe might be fraudulent,” Olivas wrote in the email, which he provided to El Paso Matters.

He alleged that UTEP officials didn’t understand the Jacobs contract and weren’t properly executing it; that the university was collecting money for Jacobs for Cone’s salary but not spending it for that purpose; and that Osegueda had directed subordinates to continue the practice with Cone’s salary.

The UT System sent Olivas’ complaint to UTEP, where an investigation was conducted by the university’s Office of Auditing and Consulting Services, records show.

On May 31, 2019, UTEP’s chief audit executive, Lori Wertz, issued two pages of findings from her investigation to UTEP Executive Vice President Richard Adauto. 

Lori Wertz (UTEP photo)

Her findings said a miscalculation of fringe benefits had led to a $300,000 deficit over the first three years of the contract. Wertz also found that Cone had been paid entirely by state funds from April through December of 2018, a violation of the Jacobs contract that called for 30 percent of his salary to come from the company.

She said UTEP was out of compliance with federal regulations and university policies that required that invoices on contracts accurately reflect work performed. Payroll checks matched invoices to Jacobs for only three months in fiscal years 2018 and 2019, Wertz found.

Wertz also reported that a “residual account” was created for the Jacobs contract on Aug. 1, 2018, before notifying Cone, who was the “principal investigator,” or PI, on the contract. Universities routinely establish residual accounts on grants or contracts to collect unexpended money as the funding cycle draws to a close. The original Jacobs contract, signed in 2014, expired in April 2018.

The two-page report didn’t explain the purpose of the residual account, who created it, how much money passed through, or how the money was used. Wertz did report that “residual funds were not utilized for any other project.”

She wrote that creating the account before informing the principal investigator “does point to a lack of internal controls and segregation of duties in the creation and use of project accounts.”

The report said UTEP had corrected the error on Cone’s salary distribution.

This two-page memo from Chief Audit Executive Lori Wertz is UTEP’s most extensive report on the problems with the university’s contract with Jacobs Engineering.

In a Jan. 23, 2020, interview with El Paso Matters, Wertz said her review found “no indication of fraud.” Wertz was the only official UTEP would make available for an interview on the Jacobs contract, and the university limited the phone interview to 15 minutes. UTEP required that all other questions be submitted in writing.

She said her report incorrectly listed the starting date of the residual account; it was created in June 2018, not in August.

Wertz said she conducted a review of issues raised by Olivas, but not a full audit of the Jacobs contract. She focused primarily on Cone’s salary. Wertz said the problem was created when Cone got a pay raise in the spring of 2018. When his new pay rate was entered into UTEP systems, staff in the budget office incorrectly charged his entire salary to state funds, Wertz said.

Wertz said the underbilling on the Jacobs contract was due to errors by the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects. She also said Cone and Olivas, as principal investigators, shared some responsibility for the problem not being caught earlier. 

Principal investigators are responsible for proper expenditure of grant and contract money they receive and are responsible for reconciling accounts through an online tool called the Project Information Center, Wertz said.

Wertz’s statement angered Cone and Olivas, who said the review process gave them access to salary information for employees, but not to the calculations used for fringe benefits, which were the cause of the underbilling. Cone said he and other UTEP researchers view the university’s contract and grant review process as a “blame-shifting mechanism.”

Arreola, the university spokesman, said that until recently, the university’s internal controls called for financial activity on grants and contracts to be reviewed only at the close of the contract. The Jacobs contract includes an original five-year term as well as renewals that could be exercised beginning in 2018, meaning the end of the contract could be in 2022.

Arreola said UTEP last year added new controls.

“As of April 2019, we initiated a new process to review contracts monthly that are billed based on hours worked,” he said.

Ashford, the grants compliance expert, said a system that relied primarily on principal investigators to ensure compliance “is not proper oversight.” He said he was surprised that UTEP waited until the end of multiyear projects to conduct a financial review.

“Annual reviews of the financial records by UTEP preferably should have been incorporated in the terms and conditions” of the contract, he said.

Ashford said “UTEP’s handing of this situation was not acceptable.”

“If this grant/contract were to be audited, UTEP could be liable for returning at least a portion of this federal funding for lack of proper oversight of its awarded funding,” he said.

In a statement, Wertz said she was satisfied with UTEP’s review of problems with the Jacobs contract.

“People make mistakes. The best thing to do is own it, fix the problem, review and amend procedures so it is less likely to happen again, and continue with the important research and teaching work we do here,” she said.

Cone and Olivas said they were not initially given a copy of Wertz’s two-page report or made aware of its findings.

Olivas received a request in July 2019 to authorize accounting changes to expenditures that were more than two years old. When he asked the accounting office why the changes were being made, he was told they were in response to an audit.

When he asked Wertz for information about an audit or review of the Jacobs contract, she told him he had to file a Texas Public Information Act request with the university, emails show. 

After Olivas made the open records request on July 15, the university sent a letter to the Texas attorney general seeking a ruling on whether it could be released. Such a request can delay the release of public documents for months.

The university withdrew the opinion request on Aug. 16 and gave Olivas the document. That was a day after UTEP released the document to El Paso Matters in response to an open records request filed in April.

UTEP officials didn’t respond to questions about why they didn’t initially provide Cone and Olivas with the report on the contract they oversaw, or why Wertz forced Olivas to file an open records request to get the two-page document.

Taking complaints outside UTEP

After filing his whistleblower complaint, Olivas continued to seek answers from Osegueda, the university’s top research official, and Adauto, an influential aide to then-UTEP President Natalicio.

He was particularly concerned that UTEP had ended what is known as “indirect return” payments to CASSMAR, the program Olivas founded when he arrived at UTEP. Indirect return is a portion of “overhead” money collected by the university from grants to cover its administrative costs. 

Before 2018, CASSMAR had received about $15,000 a year in indirect return from the Jacobs contract, Olivas said. The money was used for student stipends and to pay their travel expenses to conferences.

But in 2018 and 2019, CASSMAR received nothing, Olivas said. He said that when he asked Osegueda for an explanation, the vice president would only tell him that UTEP policy gave him the discretion to make such decisions.

Olivas said he believed Osegueda was punishing engineering students for a mistake made by the vice president’s staff.

“We should have a right to know what circumstances went behind this decision and have the ability to challenge the logic,” Olivas wrote in a Feb. 6, 2019, email to Adauto. 

UTEP redacted that sentence and much of the rest of Olivas’ Feb. 6 email to Adauto in records provided to El Paso Matters under the Texas Public Information Act. The university also redacted most of Olivas’ complaints in other emails sent to Osegueda.  Olivas provided El Paso Matters with unredacted copies.

Olivas approached El Paso Matters with his concerns in April 2019. Using state open records laws, El Paso Matters filed a request with UTEP for emails, contracts and other documents related to the Jacobs agreement. 

UTEP sought permission from the attorney general to withhold much of the requested documents. A ruling in August ordered UTEP to provide most of the requested documents, though the university was allowed to redact some material under the “deliberative process privilege,” which allows but doesn’t require governments to withhold internal policy discussions as a means of promoting frank discussion.

The university turned over the documents in November, with heavy redactions. All email comments by Adauto or Osegueda about Olivas’ concerns were redacted.

In response to an El Paso Matters open records request, UTEP heavily redacted emails regarding Danny Olivas’ concerns about how the university was handling the contract.

Olivas said he took his concerns to the Texas Rangers and State Auditor’s Office in the summer and fall of 2019. While the Rangers were noncommittal, Olivas said the state auditor informed him they were opening a preliminary investigation into his concerns. A spokesman for the state auditor said the agency doesn’t publicly discuss complaints or investigations.

On Jan. 29, 2020, Olivas got a surprise – an email notifying him that CASSMAR was receiving more than $13,000 in indirect return money from the Jacobs contract. It was the first time since 2017 that the program had received such an award.

Olivas said he believed UTEP provided the money this year because of his earlier complaints, and because of media attention.

“Kind of like giving funding to Ukraine after being caught withholding it,” he said.

UTEP officials didn’t respond to questions about why CASSMAR’s indirect funding was ended for two years and reinstated this year.

Olivas had been pressing for more than a year for UTEP to restore CASSMAR’s indirect return money. While he was happy the money came through, it was too late.

He had submitted his resignation three weeks earlier.

‘I can’t work here’

In August 2019, Natalicio retired as UTEP president and was replaced by Heather Wilson, a former New Mexico congresswoman who resigned as secretary of the Air Force to come to El Paso. Olivas said he hoped the change in leadership might lead to a fresh hearing on his concerns.

In September, he and College of Engineering Dean Theresa Maldonado met with Interim Provost John Wiebe. The meeting got off to a tense start, Olivas said, because Wiebe had incorrectly told Maldonado earlier that Olivas had improperly emailed Wilson with his concerns. Wiebe acknowledged that he was mistaken and apologized, Olivas said.

UTEP President Heather Wilson (UTEP photo)

Olivas said he gave Wiebe a large notebook documenting his concerns about how the Jacobs contract was handled. He said Wiebe, the university’s top academic officer, wanted to take the conversation in a different direction.

“It was less about the substance of the issues and more about trying to get beyond it. And his words on several occasions, I don’t remember the exact words, were something along the lines of, well, you know, we just need to move on. We need to figure out how we can move on,” Olivas said.

He said Wiebe also said “there was blame to go around” on the problems with the Jacobs contract, which Olivas interpreted as an attempt to blame him, in part, for the failures. He said he pressed the interim provost for specifics but didn’t get any clarification.

Arreola said Wiebe had reviewed UTEP’s handling of Olivas’ concerns “and determined a thorough review had been conducted. In an effort to address Dr. Olivas’ dissatisfaction with information previously provided by the University, Interim Provost Wiebe met with Dean Maldonado and Dr. Olivas on multiple occasions from September through December 2019 and answered questions.” 

In December, Olivas and Cone met with Wiebe and Wilson in the room on campus housing the Columbia artifacts. They discussed CASSMAR and the Columbia research for about an hour, then Wilson and Olivas met privately to discuss the Jacobs contract.

“At the time I was thinking, OK, now Heather’s ready to listen and she’s going to hear at least my side of the story now because I’m sure by this time she’s already heard what the administration’s side is,” Olivas said.

He said he started to explain his concerns but Wilson quickly stopped him. “She said, look Danny, you’re just going to have to let it go and move on.”

UTEP officials didn’t respond to questions about the meeting between Wilson and Olivas.

Olivas said the conversation with Wilson was a breaking point.

“It was a very surreal moment. I recall just thinking to myself, ‘I can’t believe that this conversation is going this way, or is going nowhere,’” he said. “I was like, ‘that’s it, I can’t work here.’ That’s what was going through my mind at the time.”

Olivas informed Maldonado in early January that he was resigning effective May 15.

UTEP spokesman Arreola said Olivas and Cone “have been encouraged by leadership to continue to develop their research portfolios. Unfortunately, Dr. Olivas has decided to voluntarily resign.  We respect his decision and thank him for his dedication to UTEP.”

Olivas and Cone also decided to return the Columbia artifacts to the Kennedy Space Center, bringing to an end the student research that had been the cornerstone of CASSMAR. 

“I brought Columbia to UTEP out of respect for the crew. They were my friends,” Olivas said, his voice breaking. “They were my colleagues, they were fellow space explorers and they gave the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of space exploration.”

Cone also said he worries that his job may not be secure at UTEP. As a professor of practice, he doesn’t have tenure protection.

Olivas said he trusts Cone to care for the Columbia material. “But I never know the intention of anybody else,” he said of others at UTEP.

Danny Olivas resigned from UTEP on Jan. 3, effective May 15. (Justin Hamel/El Paso Matters)

The loss of Olivas and the Columbia artifacts will deeply affect students like Joy Logan, who is in the second year of a doctoral program at CASSMAR and planned to base her dissertation on Columbia materials research.

She said Cone had told her about the problems in the Jacobs contract and the frustration he and Olivas have experienced in seeking answers. 

“It’s just very disappointing, it’s very disheartening,” she said. Logan said Cone and Olivas can help her do Columbia research at the Kennedy Space Center or elsewhere, but it will be far more complicated and expensive than if she was able to do her work on the UTEP campus.

Olivas will focus on his California-based consulting business. He and his wife, Marie, also have been active in opposing the Trump administration’s immigration policies. They created the Space for Everyone Foundation to raise awareness about issues faced by immigrant children.

He said he continues to be proud to be from El Paso and to be a UTEP graduate. But he also expresses frustration and disappointment over the events that led to his departure from the university. He feels like an outcast.

“And it’s a shame because I’m a proud UTEP Miner. I took the UTEP flag in orbit with me,” Olivas said. “You just kind of feel like an abandoned family member. But by the same token, you know, I can sleep at night.”

Disclosure: The Space for Everyone Foundation, organized by Danny and Marie Olivas, donated $1,500 to El Paso Matters for reporting on migration issues.

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Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist and the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award. Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on border issues by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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