By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; A01
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.Citing expertise
Other carmakers also like to hire federal expertise.
Jacqueline Glassman, a former NHTSA chief counsel and then deputy administrator, joined the federal government in 2002 after working for DaimlerChrysler, Now she works at Hogan & Hartson, a law firm that represents Nissan and Mercedes-Benz. The firm threw Glassman a lavish party when she secured the NHTSA post and recruited her four years later, records show.
Glassman, who is well known for fighting "lemon laws" for defective automobiles, defended her job moves and said that it is helpful to the agency to have knowledgeable people serving as intermediaries between the agency, the private sector and non-governmental organizations.
"The government, private industry and NGOs all hire individuals with expertise," she said. "Having knowledge about how industry operates helps the government regulate and make policy . . . Finally, former government officials can help companies understand their legal responsibilities and what is expected of them."
Every major automaker has several such intermediaries.
Former agency compliance engineer Amanda Prescott now works for Ford. Former agency director of the Office of Crashworthiness Research, Ralph J. Hitchcock, now works for American Honda Motor Co. And past agency administrator Diane Steed is a partner at Strat@Comm, a Washington public relations and lobbying firm that represents General Motors Corp.Joining the fight
The expertise now used against NHTSA includes fighting standards on vehicle parts and components.
For example, Keith Brewer, a former mechanical engineer for NHTSA who led tests on rollover and tire safety, among other things, now works for the Rubber Manufacturers Association. That organization, funded by the tire industry, financed a legal review last summer that is now being used to fight agency's efforts to create a new rating system that would provide consumers with information on tire safety and durability.
Records show Brewer's research was used in the effort. He did not return calls seeking comment.
Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said that President Obama, by executive order and within hours of taking office, placed a two-year ban on senior presidential appointees ability to contact their former agencies. But most of the officials who went through NHTSA's revolving door are not covered by the ban. The Washington Post also identified two former auto industry employees now working inside NHTSA. Although such a move typically includes taking a pay cut, employees can cycle back into the private sector within a few years, sometimes doubling their salaries with their highly marketable insider knowledge of the agency.
"They look upon that time as a down payment on future income," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of Center for Auto Safety, who is opposed to the agency hiring staff from the industry. "On the whole, regulators shouldn't come from the regulated industry and they certainly shouldn't go back."
Automotive safety experts said that although revolving-door trends are common in Washington, the consequences with this agency are potentially greater for several reasons.The gatekeeper
The agency's Office of Defects Investigation has a staff of 57 that is easily overpowered by thousands of experts in Washington who represent the auto industry. The agency is the government's gatekeeper on auto defects, which account for at least 10 percent of vehicle fatalities each year, according to the Center for Auto Safety. It is also responsible for setting legal standards that consumers depend on as they shop for vehicles, typically the second largest investment they will make outside their home mortgages.
Because the revolving door is so prevalent, there is concern that the industry isn't being scrutinized as rigorously as it should be.
"Did they go easy on the industry when they were in office with this tacit understanding that the industry would take care of them afterward?" said Allan J. Kam, a former senior enforcement attorney for NHTSA and director of Highway Traffic Safety Associates. "When someone has held a policymaking position at the agency they shouldn't be pandering that credential to the automaker industry for past agency employment."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.