NASA's former chief of staff pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal conspiracy charge stemming from a $600,000 contract awarded by the space agency to Mississippi State University, a client of his consulting firm.
Courtney Stadd, NASA's chief of staff and White House liaison from 2001 to 2003, pleaded guilty to one conspiracy charge in a nine-count indictment in federal court in Gulfport, Miss., said Sheila Wilbanks, a U.S. attorney's office spokeswoman.
He faces up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 at sentencing, set for Nov. 18, Wilbanks said.
Stadd was indicted in December 2009 on charges that included conspiracy, false statements, false claims, obstructing a grand jury and fraud. He had faced 55 years if convicted of all counts.
Stadd's attorneys did not immediately respond to messages left Wednesday.
Prosecutors say Stadd conspired with Liam Sarsfield, NASA's former chief deputy engineer in Washington. Sarsfield pleaded guilty in November to one charge against him: acts affecting a personal financial interest.
Sarsfield controlled a $1.5 million fund and designed contracts that wouldn't have to be put out for bid. He steered them where he wanted them to go, including to Mississippi State University and a company in Ohio, prosecutors said, netting himself about $270,000 in illegal profits.
Stadd began conspiring with Sarsfield in 2004 to direct the $600,000 contract to MSU, which then subcontracted $450,000 to Stadd's consulting business, Capitol Solutions, prosecutors said. The consulting firm allegedly paid Sarsfield $87,752 on that contract.
The contract was for a remote sensing study awarded by NASA's Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss.
MSU spokeswoman Maridith W. Geuder said no one at the university was implicated in the case.
"MSU has fully cooperated in the investigation since it began, and we were not aware any laws were allegedly broken until the investigation began," Geuder said Wednesday in an e-mail.
Stadd had already been convicted of an ethics violation for steering a different contract for almost $10 million to the university. He was sentenced last year to three years' probation in that case.
Stadd started his consulting firm after leaving NASA in 2003, but he returned to the agency for a few months in 2005 as the interim No. 3 official during a reorganization after the Columbia space shuttle disaster.
During that time, Mississippi State ended up with $9.6 million in agency funds for earth science research, authorities said.