Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article, including in the print edition of Tuesday's Washington Post, misidentified Diane Steed as Donna Steed.

Analysis finds uneasy mix in auto industry and regulation

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Dozens of former federal officials are playing leading roles in helping carmakers handle federal investigations of auto defects, including those for Toyota's runaway-acceleration problems.

A Washington Post analysis shows that as many as 33 former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration employees and Transportation Department appointees left those jobs in recent years and now work for automakers as lawyers, consultants and lobbyists and in other jobs that deal with government safety probes, recalls and regulations.

The reach of these former agency employees is broad. They are on staff rosters for every major automaker and every major automotive trade group, and they appear as expert witnesses and legal counsel for the industry in major class-action lawsuits over auto safety.

Several former Cabinet members have gone on to work for automakers. Last week, Toyota hired Rodney E. Slater, the transportation secretary under President Bill Clinton, to head its North American Quality Advisory Panel, which assists the company with quality and safety issues.

No law bans these officials from moving straight from government into industry. But critics of the revolving-door practice say that it has contributed to flaws in federal oversight and enforcement, and several members of Congress say legislation is needed to prevent former employees from conducting business with the agency for up to two years after leaving government jobs.

"The relationship is too cozy, and it is not an equal playing field," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is pushing for revolving-door reforms. "They need to insulate themselves a bit. People of our country expect there will be checks and balances and that someone will be looking out for them." Some former agency and department officials say the revolving-door practice is common in every industry and gives companies a fuller understanding of the federal government.

The revolving-door issue will come up at a hearing Thursday held by a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Over the past several weeks, congressional hearings into Toyota Motor Corp. have highlighted the instrumental roles played by two former NHTSA officials -- Christopher Santucci and Chris Tinto -- in managing federal investigations and a recall demanded by their former employer. In 2003, as problems with Toyota's sudden acceleration intensified, Santucci gave two weeks' notice and joined Toyota's team, working under Tinto, who was his Toyota contact. Tinto had gone to work for Toyota nine years earlier. Both had worked in the agency's Office of Defects Investigation.

An internal Toyota document, subpoenaed by a House committee, showed Toyota officials boasted about the effectiveness of the effort in which Santucci and Tinto were involved, saying it saved the company as much as $100 million.

Santucci and Tinto declined to comment, but Toyota spokesman Ed Lewis said that both men have "always acted in a manner consistent with the highest ethical standards and professionalism in the performance of their duties for Toyota."

Lewis said Toyota has done nothing improper, adding that Santucci and Tinto are "valued for their expertise, not their influence."

Former NHTSA lawyers Kenneth Weinstein and Erika Jones also do legal work for Toyota. Weinstein, who created the agency's Early Warning Reporting System to identify defects, serves as a company lawyer handling sudden-acceleration lawsuits. Jones also is working on these cases and is providing legal advice to Toyota on how it should handle the congressional probes. Jones declined an interview request. Weinstein did not return calls seeking comment.

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