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Who is Sean O'Keefe?

By Ed O'Keefe and Emma Brown

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.

Sean O'Keefe
Sean O'Keefe.

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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By Ed O'Keefe and Emma Brown  | August 10, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Miscellaneous  
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Sean O'Keefe and His Son Survived the Crash

Posted by: kcowing | August 10, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

It is confirmed by Reuters:

Posted by: bs2004 | August 10, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Sean was Navy Comptroller and the first real "big brass" I ever had to brief on the Navy budget for my area of responsibility. I will never forget that day. I was so impressed with his grasp of my command's responsibilities and his understanding of my briefing. I went away with marching orders and came back and fulfilled his requests. And my command got their money. I met him a few times thereafter and he always gave me words of greeting. He is a true gentleman. And he served this country well. I wish he and his son a speedy recovery.

Posted by: sandynh | August 10, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

I was a state official who had the privilege of working with Sean when he served as Chancellor of LSU. He is thoughtful, capable and action oriented. He gets things done. And he's a nice guy to boot. His vast experience was a blessing following the nightmare of hurricane Katrina when seemingly overnight he transformed his campus into a major evacuation and medical center.He focused his campus resources on helping those in need.Sean O'Keefe is a class act.Best wishes to you and Kevin. Get well soon! Joe S.

Posted by: prez1 | August 10, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

I met Sean over 30 years ago. He asked me to support him in his bid for SGA president at Loyola and then handed me flyers to post in Buddig Hall, the girls dorm. He was a nice guy, always with a smile and a kind word. He and his family are in my prayers.

Posted by: dmbnola | August 10, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

o'keefe is a perfect Stevens mentee.. he never met a piece of personal pork for himself that he wouldn't have the govt buy for him.

Posted by: newagent99 | August 10, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

I was on the staff of the late Senator Bill Roth, R-DE 1973-76 when I knew Sean, then a junior Minority staffer on the Senate Appropriations Committee togethr with colleague Linda then residing in Odenton. Our frienship continued when I later worked for the late Senator Hiram L. Fong R-HI. Sean was brilliant and then a rising star who moved on to illustrious careers on and off Hill. I moved on to House staff position with former Rep. Marjorie Holt, R-4th Dist, MD and got to know Sean more. This friendship continued when I left the Hill and went to work for Gould Ind Defense Systems. Sean rose in seniority with Senate Appropriations Committee. We shared good times attending Air Shows in Farnbrough and Paris. I pray for speedy reovery for Sean and son. With sad prayers for the loss of WW II vet and former Senator Ted Stevens who was very close to Senator Fong. The last time I saw Ted was when he attended a farewell dinner hosted by Hiram at the Peking Restaurant, 14th St, DC in 1976. Words of condolene however eloquent will never bridge the chasm of such an untimely loss of a WW II hero and great Senator who was cleared of dark blemish caused by visious allegations that so ended the career of a great statesman and capable senator.
LTC (Ret) and Mrs. Kenneth Wu,US Army.

Posted by: kjaj0114 | August 11, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

How refreshing to read such kind words. So many times I see articles like this and the comments are cruel and undeserving. I served in the Navy for 22 years and have been retired now for 10. I was beginning to forget the caliber of people I had the pleasure to serve along side, civilian and military. Thank you for reminding me that there really are kind and considerate people left in our country.

Posted by: wilkll | August 11, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Decisions or lack there of under the Bush administrations left NASA lost in the wilderness, as it is today. No real vision. Mars? Repeat performance on the moon? If only there had been some long term imagination. In Senior government positions since the age of 30 may have needed some experience, instead of OJT on the government dime. However, I wish Sean and the other survivors well.

Posted by: Msohio1 | August 11, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Sean was my professor while studying Public Administration at the Maxwell School at Syracuse in 1998-1999. Of all the great teachers there, Sean is the one who taught me the most and I most fondly remember. He was always willing to share his life experiences with us, taught me many business and government skills that I use in my career every day, and he did it all with an authenticity that is rare in today's world. I was saddened to hear that he and his son were in this tragic crash and critically wounded. I wish him a speedy recovery and many years of good health.

From, Katy "Top Flite" Howe (if you read this Sean and remember the reference!)

Posted by: kdhowe831 | August 11, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

I'm sending "Get well soon" wishes from my household for Sean and his son. Although I don't know him personally, he feels so familiar from the years of press conferences and documentaries that helped me understand and stay connected to the NASA community. His joy and his pain were always evident; he came across as very real and he will always be much appreciated for that by the general American public (like me).

Posted by: DianaDC1 | August 13, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

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