Who is Sean O'Keefe?
By Ed O'Keefe and Emma Brown
Updated 4:07 p.m. ET
Though most of the coverage of Tuesday's Alaska plane crash is focused on former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), many in Washington and the corporate and academic worlds are familiar with another passenger on the plane, Sean O'Keefe (no relation to Ed).
O'Keefe, 54, and his teenage son Kevin survived the crash with multiple injuries, according to the Associated Press. The news service cited a former NASA spokesman, who said he had spoken to O'Keefe's family.
One of many senior government officials who weave between the public and private sectors, O'Keefe has served on Capitol Hill, in the Executive Branch, and most recently as an executive at EADS North America, sitting at the intersection of government and business as he led the company’s efforts to win a mammoth Pentagon contract to build a new generation of aerial tankers for the military.
O'Keefe began his Washington career as a Presidential Management Intern (now known as Presidential Management Fellows) and later served as a senior staffer with the Senate Appropriations Committee. He specialized in defense spending and became close to powerful Senate Republicans including Stevens (who in 2003 called O’Keefe “one of the closest friends I have in the world,") and then-Rep. Dick Cheney.
As defense secretary, Cheney tapped O'Keefe as chief financial officer of the Defense Department in 1989. He turned to him again in 1992, naming O'Keefe secretary of the Navy in the wake of the Tailhook sexual harassment scandal. O'Keefe oversaw an investigation of the scandal that led to the resignation of two Navy admirals and the reassignment of a third.
"We get it," he told reporters at the time. "We know that the larger issue is a cultural problem which has allowed demeaning behavior and attitudes toward women to exist within the Navy."
The Tailhook scandal was just the first of several high-profile incidents O'Keefe would manage.
"He found himself in challenging places everywhere," said Max Stier, president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. Stier recruited O'Keefe to join the board about 10 years ago.
O'Keefe spent the Clinton years in academia, teaching at Penn State and Syracuse universities. He returned to government during George W. Bush's administration, serving briefly at the Office of Management and Budget and later as NASA administrator.
Though he lacked formal training in science or engineering, O'Keefe's reputation for reining in costs and untangling bookkeeping problems earned him Congressional support for the job.
NASA was struggling at the time with cost overruns for the International Space Station. He promised during his Senate confirmation hearings to “get the house in order,” and brought space-station spending under control. Then came the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in Feb. 2003.
Seven astronauts died in the accident and O'Keefe later walked a delicate line between protecting agency morale and satisfying inquiries from Congress and the press. Though he was criticized for decisions, such as limiting access to NASA documents and e-mail messages related to the accident, O’Keefe largely won praise for the open way in which he handled the accident -- particularly in contrast with the agency’s evasiveness after the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986.
The relentless scrutiny took its personal toll. “Every day,” O’Keefe said during the investigation, “is like a year.”
Known in NASA circles as "a budgeteer, not a rocketeer,” he became an outspoken advocate for continued space exploration and played a key role in guiding the president’s decisions about the agency’s post-Columbia mission. His advocacy led to Bush’s announcement in 2004 of NASA’s new Vision for Space Exploration, a plan to return to the moon, journey to Mars and continue exploring the solar system.
But O'Keefe stirred controversy near the end of his NASA tenure when he decided against sending a manned space shuttle to repair the popular Hubble Space Telescope, a decision later overturned by his successor. He also drew criticism after a Government Accountability Office report revealed the agency spent $20 million extra to fly senior NASA officials on government jets instead of commercial flights.
O’Keefe resigned from NASA in 2005 and became chancellor of Louisiana State University, joining the school just before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region. He left in 2008 to join the General Electric Co, heading Washington operations for its aviation division, and later joined EADS North America.
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Ed O'Keefe and Emma Brown
| August 10, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
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