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

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."

Ethics experts who reviewed the documents took issue with Nord's overall defense of industry-financed travel.

"It's never a good idea to have your expenses paid for by a party or parties who will be advocating on a matter before your agency," said a career ethics lawyer at another government agency who requested anonymity because he was not cleared to comment for the record. "It's legal . . . but it is clearly an abuse of discretion. . . . It exhibited at best enormous insensitivity, and at worst outright disdain for the ethical principles of government service."

Agency lawyers also signed off on a private jet trip for Stratton and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to tour a Zippo lighter plant in Pennsylvania and to meet with industry lobbyists, according to the documents. The agency's formal request for an ethics review listed the jet service, not the regulated industry, as the provider of the free flight.

Written legal clearance for that trip was granted more than a week after the visit, although the agency said yesterday that the travel was also approved "orally" by its general counsel. The commission valued the private jet flight at $461, a fare predicated on the cost of the commercial fare back to Washington. At prevailing jet charter rates, the cost would have exceeded $1,500.

Listing the name of the jet company as a sponsor of the travel "raised tons of red flags," said the government ethics lawyer. "It would be like taking a trip to Paris and giving the names of the airlines and hotels as my sponsors."

In April 2004, Stratton took an $11,000 trip to China at the expense of the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, which said in a letter that it wanted him to "see firsthand the challenges facing the U.S. industry in importing fireworks that comply with CPSC regulations." Stratton has said his nearly 25 industry-financed trips were good opportunities to be in contact with manufacturers. The CPSC said yesterday that it does not regulate that fireworks entity.

In February, Nord, who was a corporate lawyer before taking her post, was asked to recruit paying attendees for a meeting of lawyers who defend manufacturers in product-liability cases. In offering to pay for her trip, Defense Research Institute lawyer Steven Coronado wrote: "I do ask that you assist in marketing by using the brochures you have received and getting them into the hands of people you think might be interested in attending."

Danielle Brian, who directs the Project on Government Oversight, called the request "creepy." After reviewing documents for several trips, she said: "It's as if they're tone-deaf. . . . In every explanation for why 'it's not a conflict,' they make a forceful case for why it is."

In February, the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organization -- a broad-based professional group -- balked at the agency's request that it pay for six commission employees to attend its meeting in Orlando. "We totally understand that the presence of the Consumer Product Safety Commission at our meetings is important to our success," the group's chief, Ross Koeser, wrote in an e-mail.

But "ICPHSO is a non-profit organization with an extremely tight budget," and Koeser countered with an offer to "pay for all the Chairman's expenses" and partial expenses for one staff member.

R. David Pittle, who was appointed by President Richard M. Nixon to help found the agency in 1973 and served as a commissioner until 1982, said: "The CPSC is the only thing standing between a consumer and a potentially dangerous product. . . . For me, it doesn't matter if these trips and gratuities pass some legal test -- it's highly inappropriate public policy."

Staff researchers Rena Kirsch and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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