CPSC's Ethics-Review Process For Travel Criticized by Experts

Acting Chairman Nancy Nord said the Consumer Product Safety Commission's review process is "painstaking." (By Jay Mallin -- Bloomberg News)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Top officials at the Consumer Product Safety Commission repeatedly took costly trips at industry expense after internal reviews that ethics experts say were weak and superficial, including one instance in which the agency's ethics official traveled with the commission chairman as a guest of a regulated industry.

In several cases, the agency made travel bookings before the trips were approved. For another industry-financed trip detailed in internal agency documents, written legal approval came after the trip.

On Friday, acting Chairman Nancy Nord publicly defended the agency's review process for industry-financed travel as "painstaking." She said the purpose of the trips is to "carry our enforcement message to the toy and other industries."

She said none of the travel was illegal because reviews concluded that the trips complied with a federal regulation barring acts that might cause "a reasonable person . . . to question the integrity of agency programs or operations." She told a TV interviewer that "we look to see that there's no conflict of interest, and we look to see that there is no appearance of conflict of interest."

More than 100 pages of documents related to internal reviews of nine out of nearly 30 industry-financed trips include several in which the sponsoring industry had issues before the commission.

The records supplied to The Washington Post by the agency detail how a trip to China by former agency chairman Hal Stratton in 2004 was partly financed by the Toy Industry Association and was approved by the office of then-general counsel John G. Mullan, who traveled with Stratton.

Stratton gave a speech and toured toy factories, and with Mullan accumulated $18,000 in expenses billed to the association, covering five out of 12 days of travel for Stratton.

Nord got the green light for a toy-industry-financed trip to San Francisco in 2005 after the agency's general counsel's office vouched for the trip's legality -- and the general counsel, Page Faulk, then went on the trip. Nord and Faulk spent two days at the four-star InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, attending the Toy Industry Association's annual meeting, the documents state.

The key ethics review memo states at the top that it came from Faulk, whom it describes as the "Designated Agency Ethics Official." But it was signed by someone the CPSC yesterday called "an alternate ethics officer" because Faulk was the traveler.

The memo noted that the association's members make 85 percent of the toys sold in the United States. It also said that the industry had submitted comments on a rule specifying when manufacturers must inform the commission of a product hazard that could lead to a recall, and noted that Faulk was among those charged with reviewing the comments.

The $3,730 tab for Faulk and Nord's trip was to be paid by the Toy Industry Foundation, whose mission, according to the ethics memo, is to help at-risk children "by meeting a vital, yet frequently overlooked, developmental need often missing in their lives -- play."

Nord went early to the city, bringing along her husband for the weekend before the meeting. He is listed as an additional driver of a car that was rented before the weekend and that was billed in its entirety to the toy industry, which paid $171, according to the Thrifty Car Rental bill and a CPSC travel expense report signed by Nord. A CPSC spokeswoman said last night that Nord "believes the charge was appropriate."

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