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Consumer Agency's Recent 'Gift Travel' May Spur a Ban

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007

Records newly released by the Consumer Product Safety Commission demonstrate that its employees traveled on industry-financed trips dating at least to 1998, demonstrating a wider use of "gift travel" than previously known.

Seven Democratic lawmakers, reacting to earlier disclosures of nearly 30 more-recent business-paid trips by the current and past chairmen of the commission, introduced a measure yesterday to end travel by all federal regulators at the expense of the industries they regulate.

"The image of toy companies paying for federal regulators to travel around the globe while American children are at home playing with toxic toys is probably seared into the minds of millions of parents," Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement.

His co-sponsors on the Restoring Truth in Regulator Travel Act are Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Nancy A. Nord, acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and her predecessor, Hal Stratton, accepted nearly 30 trips since 2002 paid for in full or in part by regulated industries, according to documents released last week. Further records released by the agency this week show that Ann Brown, a Clinton appointee who chaired the agency from 1994 to 2001, did not accept travel paid by regulated industries.

"I did not think it appropriate for me to travel on the industry's dime, and we tried to do it as little as possible," Brown said yesterday. But when the agency bumped up against its travel budget limits, she said, "I did think it was appropriate to send the appropriate line staff to lecture to the industry . . . on how things should be done."

Records covering the period from 1998 to 2002 describe two trips by Brown's politically appointed staff, including a six-day toy-industry-funded trip to China in 2000 by then-general counsel Walt A. Sanders, who participated in a seminar on new toy-safety standards.

The agency's current executive director, Patsy Semple, is listed in the documents as having taken a 2002 trip to Palm Springs to speak at a meeting of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, whose members had been subject to recalls in the years preceding the trip. At the time, Semple was special assistant to Mary Sheila Gall, a Republican-appointed commissioner no longer with the agency. Semple's trip was paid for by the manufacturers' association.

Two industry-paid trips -- a two-day trip to Los Angeles to attend a Toy Manufacturers of America toy-testing seminar and a one-day trip to speak to the National Cotton Council in Orlando -- were taken in 1998 and 2000 by Clinton-appointed commissioner Thomas Hill Moore, who besides Nord is the only other commissioner at the agency.

Three other China trips, two paid for by the toy industry, and one by fireworks manufacturers, were taken by Alan Schoem, a 31-year employee who was director of compliance when he retired in 2004.

Schoem, who describes himself as an "Ann Brown fan," recalled that when he applied for the travel, "I would indicate that there could be the appearance of a conflict of interest, but that the interests of the government outweighed the appearance of a conflict." He said he lectured manufacturers "on their duties and responsibilities to consumers. I went through each of the toy safety standards . . . [and] the consequences for violating the law."

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