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Consumer Product Safety Commission: Gift Travel

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Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007; 12:00 PM

The chief of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and her predecessor have taken dozens of trips at the expense of the toy, appliance and children's furniture industries and others they regulate, according to internal records obtained by The Washington Post. Some of the trips were sponsored by lobbying groups and lawyers representing the makers of products linked to consumer hazards.

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But CPSC officials defend the industry-paid trips as a way for the agency to be in contact with manufacturing officials and hear their concerns despite a limited travel budget. Commission spokeswoman Julie Vallese said the agency's counsel and its ethics officers conducted "a full conflict-of-interest analysis" of the trips and stand behind their decisions.

Washington Post staff writer Elizabeth Williamson was online Friday, Nov. 2, at Noon ET to discuss the investigation.

A transcript follows.

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Elizabeth Williamson: Hello everyone, Welcome and thanks for joining me. I'm keen to hear your questions and comments on the Consumer Product Safety Commission, its travel, anything else on your minds.

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Curious in D.C.: Has the CPSC publicly disclosed its "full conflict of interest analysis" for these industry-sponsored trips?

Elizabeth Williamson: Hi DC, no they have not as yet, though I have been asking them for that and will continue to do so. As of late yesterday my request was under review.

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Former Fed, D.C.: Good afternoon,

These revelations seem quite shocking for a jaded ol' Washingtonian. When I worked for a federal agency, we could not accept so much as a glass of Ginger Ale from a regulated entity. If the budget didn't allow for travel, we didn't travel. I served under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

I always thought the standard was a bit tighter than "appearance" of a conflict (part of being a civil servant involved sitting through many rounds of ethics training). Has something changed or is this agency an outlier? How did they get away with it?

Elizabeth Williamson: yes, this regulation surprised me, but it dates to 1989, and allows agencies to accept gifts of travel (accommodations, etc) from "non-federal sources" as long as they comply with strict criteria, that centers on ensuring the travel does not constitute a conflict of interest, or the appearance of one. The decision on whether to allow travel under the statute and regulations is left to an agency's ethics officer. So it is that individual(s) who are charged with ensuring such travel complies.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why is everyone piling onto this tiny agency? Do you really have good travel records from the past? Are you planning similar reporting into EPA and OSHA? In the 1990s, a book came out that made similar travel allegations about EPA. The media fails to do enough routine coverage of federal agencies. Instead, it creates these swarms that resemble the approach it takes to sensational crime cases.

Elizabeth Williamson: Hi, I am a huge advocate for federal government reporting, as I am a federal government reporter. I've been helping out in Congress of late, and am now back on the job so please stay tuned. As for this agency, it has been piled upon since 1981, when under the Reagan administration its budget and staff were slashed dramatically. People inside the agency say it has never fully recovered.

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Anonymous: How was it possible for this president to circumvent the need for the CPSC chairman to remain independent with a legal memo stating the chairman basically served at the will of the president. See Memorandum Opinion for the Counsel to the President (July 31, 2001) -- another of the infamous legal rulings coming out of this administration. When are we going to see prosecutions for these violations?

Elizabeth Williamson: Hi, I look forward to reading what you sent, but meanwhile wanted to point out that the CPSC chairs do serve at the pleasure of the President, because they are appointed by him. Stratton and Nord are both Bush appointees; Ann Brown was Clinton's, tho Bush did reappoint her and she resigned in 2001.

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Tampa, Fla.: It's not just toys! We really need to regulate trial studies for Silicone Breast implants. I am frustrated that the sponsors are the one's calling the shots.

Elizabeth Williamson: different agency, but I am not familiar enough with this issue to comment. thanks for writing, tho

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Washington, D.C.: One of the reasons given it seems for taking the travel was necessity and lack of funds, yet isn't this the same agency that just told Congress they didn't need more funding? If the CPSC is so well funded and these trips are nessisary, why not have the CPSC pay for them (forget the $900 hotel rooms). It seems that either the rationale in the ethics justification or the recent letter to the Congress is wrong.

Elizabeth Williamson: Nancy Nord has opposed legislation in Congress to expand the agency's regulatory authority and resources; but she has said that she does not object to more money, rather to the way in which the legislation would achieve the expansion. It is curious tho, given the agency's mission to monitor more than 15,000 products with just over 400 staff and fewer than 100 field officers.

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Annapolis, Md.: Hi-

Thank you for the excellent story in today's Washington Post. The research, writing and presentation of facts were excellent. And you did the public a huge favor in exposing this.

I especially enjoyed the segment of the article in which the CSPC spokesperson defended the travel by stating that the CSPC's ethics officers had reviewed and approved the travel.

Wow. Who are these ethics officers in the CSPC?

I would love to see a follow-up interview with the ethics officers of the CSPC. It would be illuminating to find out, using their standards, if any action taken by the CSPC could be deemed to be dishonorable, unprincipled, or unethical.

Thanks again

washingtonpost.com: Industries Paid for Top Regulators' Travel ( Post, Nov. 2)

Elizabeth Williamson: Thank you for compliment; I had a wonderful researcher, Madonna Lebling, helping on this project and wanted to give a shoutout to her. I am asking the CPSC to at least see some background on the decisionmaking by its ethics officers and so far they have not agreed to this. Meeting their ethics officer(s) would be great as I am interested too in what criteria were applied to these trips. The CPSC says that all was done legally, I should point out.

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washington, DC: Twenty years ago, even under Republican administrations, there was the ICC, the FTC as well as the CPSC to protect consumers. Who's doing that now? Not "Nada" Nord.

Elizabeth Williamson: Well, if measures moving through Congress pass and President Bush signs them, it is likely you will see an effort to beef up the CPSC's authority, at least. If that happens it would be the first time in a generation that the agency has had its powers expanded.

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Vienna, Va.: I used to work for a federal goverment agency at a senior and political level. The ethics offices were pretty thorough. Which begs the question -- are these trips in violation of ethics rules or are they not? Even though many people, including myself, might argue that these trips not only look wrong, but are wrong, your story seems not to clearly resolve this central question. Any particular reason why?

Elizabeth Williamson: Hi. Gary Davis, who is quoted in the story, made the point that without a paper trail that shows the decisionmaking involved in these trips, it is tough to say whether they violate the code. I've asked the CPSC for supporting documents for several of the trips, and am waiting to see whether they agree to provide them.

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Re: ensuring the travel does not constitute a conflict of interest: Why would someone get a gift of travel if the gift giver didn't want something from them?

Elizabeth Williamson: Yes, I think that is the question implicit here. The travel was paid mostly by trade and lobbying groups whose products are regulated by the CPSC, so that, ethics experts say, definitely raises the bar on proving that there is no conflict of interest.

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Charlottesville, Va.: These charges seem to be motivated by politics. I guess the people behind this must be SURE that none of this happened under Clinton. In any event, if the travel is to help communicate an industry concern to a government official who needs to understand the context, what is wrong with it? After all, part of many government oversight problems is we have agency officials who sit on their butts in Washington and never peek beyond the Beltway. Citizens and industry groups have the right to make their case and if they have to pay airfare to do it then don't stop it. There are other non-financial means to gain favor with a government official and the details of those means would never be as open as a trip to China.

Elizabeth Williamson: That is point of view held by many. However the information provided was not provided by any individual, taking politics out of it. The documents detailing this travel were provided by the agency in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. I asked for the same records for Ann Brown, the Clinton-appointed chairman. They did not show the same pattern of industry-sponsored travel.

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Baltimore, Md.: Thanks for doing this story. I would note that the concern over product safety from China began with pet food. Has a similar analysis begun with respect whatever agency was supposed to make sure that our dogs and cats did not die from tainted food?

Elizabeth Williamson: That would be the FDA, and I am not aware of anything as regards travel. I did do a story on problems with spinach and peanut butter that emerged about the same time, which the agency had known about for years.

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Annandale, Va.: Do you think you will eventually be able to trace a "gift trip" to a specific report on a product reviewed by the CPSC and determine whether is was influenced by money?

Elizabeth Williamson: The agency maintains that such links do not exist; but in answer to your question, yes it is a very worthwhile pursuit!

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Washington, D.C.: Did the trip(s) to China have anything to do with the recent recalls of toys manufactured there?

Elizabeth Williamson: The $8,000 Toy Industry Association-funded travel for Hal Stratton's trip to China dates to 2004, before problems with lead in toys emerged publicly

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washingtonpost.com: FDA Was Aware of Dangers To Food ( Post, April 23)

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Washington DC: Does this play into the larger theme of the Bush administration redirecting the intent of agencies from protecting the individual -- the citizenry, the consumer, the environment -- to the business interest being regulated? Whether it's shelving a NASA report because its results could harm airline profits to diminishing oversight of mine safety to lifting or replacing strict rules at the EPA and now to the clear failures we are seeing at CPSC, there's a determined strategy here, is there not?

This should be troublesome to all Americans.

Elizabeth Williamson: I talked to several people whose view was yes, the Bush-appointed chairmen at CPSC are more sympathetic toward the industries they regulate than Brown, their Clinton-appointed predecessor--both of them, Stratton and Nord, hail from corporate legal backgrounds and Stratton in particular, favors a small-government, free-market philosophy.

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Washington, D.C.: I was surprised at the "Former Fed's" naivety. Perhaps, I have become jaded after my tenure in government but ethics officers serve in most instances for the agency general counsel who in turn serves for the agency head. Ethics only applies to small crimes and misdemeanors.

Elizabeth Williamson: oh no. Please do not burst my balloon.

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Washington, D.C.: Curious as to the timing of your story -- was it rushed to publication to get out after Pelosi called for Nord's resignation? Seems like Nord was just following what her predecessor had done and that the trips were fully vetted with those who must approve this type of trip.

Elizabeth Williamson: The timing was mostly dictated by the timing agency's response to my FOIA request, which was made this summer and took a couple of months to fulfill, which actually, in FOIA-land, ain't bad.

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McLean, Va.: I heard you say a little while ago on MSNBC that you filed a Freedom of Information act type-thing in order to get some CPSC reports. How hard was that and do you expect to get some more information and where do you think it will take the story? Will people be incriminated?

Elizabeth Williamson: You are asking for my trade secrets! But actually fellow citizen it was not hard to file the request; in my case it went thru the public affairs office and people were quite helpful, which brings me to a good final point: in every government agency, there are obviously career people who have been there regardless of who's in the White House appointing their bosses, and are trying hard to do their jobs. At the CPSC, I can imagine how frustrating those people's jobs must be, given the budget situation and the turmoil at the top.

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Missoula, Mont.: Could you elaborate on why Ms. Nord has rebuffed additional resources for her agency?

Elizabeth Williamson: I hesitate to characterize her objections in this small space but she has told Congress that the expansion in the legislation would add several new facets to the agency's mission, including responding to whistleblower complaints, that she does not think it is equipped or funded to take on, even at the increased funding levels the bill envisions.

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Clifton, Va.: What's of more concern here -- the fact that these industry-sponsored trips even took place, or the fact that the CPSC and its "ethics officials" don't see anything wrong with them?

Also, it seems that with some of the posters today, and perhaps some of the officials you spoke with as well, the traditional right-wing mantra -- "Clinton did it too!" -- is being used. Did you find that to be true during your researching for your story?

Elizabeth Williamson: No, I did not note the same pattern of industry-sponsored travel by the Clinton appointee, Ann Brown, in the documents provided to me by the agency. I think you put your finger on the two key issues here; it's difficult for me to rank one over the other.

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Winthop, Mass.: At what level do these violations of at least the appearance of trust become criminal? If they improperly took these trips in violation of the influence rules, are these act criminal? What has to be proven to bring criminal charges, and what are the likely penalties?

Elizabeth Williamson: Whew, that one's for the legal folk upstairs...the agency maintains that these trips were legal and ethical, and vetted as such.

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Washington, D.C./Silver Spring, Md.: Until the 2006 elections, Congress wanted agencies like CPSC to do nothing. That is, let the "market" control hazards, but as we have seen in 2007, recalls of children's toys have NOT been linked with market forces (in fact only discovered by understaffed safety professionals suggesting to me much greater hazards not yet discovered). So the travel you profiled was paid in the hope that CPSC would do nothing (rather than make rulings in favor of a company). Do you agree with this interpretation?

Elizabeth Williamson: We do not know that. But your thoughts are the essence of the phrase "the appearance of impropriety," and why it should be avoided by regulators, especially regulators of the products you and I and our kids use.

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Washington, D.C.: Ms Williamson,

There are several angles that I think you may have wanted to include in your piece. One, what is the funding this particular government agency receives for travel from Congress? Perhaps it is been slashed since the Clinton administration, much as the travel from other government agency travel budgets have been slashed in recent years.

Secondly, I don't think your article emphasizes enough the importance of government agencies participating in educational meetings as speakers and presentaters. It is vitally important not only to the trade associations or other groups, but it is important for government agencies to continue educating and being educated about the products/areas they regulate. As was quoted in the article, ".....you can't do that from the ivory tower."

Your piece leads the general public to believe that these trips were frivolous and unnecessary when most of the time, that is the only way that the government agencies can attend meetings and conferences. Meetings and conferences are vitally important to regulators, if the general public expects them to regulate effectively. How else will they learn what is going on in their industry and then make decisions for the good of the public?

Perhaps a followup piece should focus on the benfits of attending these types of events instead of making it sound like there is a conflict of interest -- perceived or real. I consider this slanted and irresponsible reporting.

Elizabeth Williamson: Thanks for comments; you quoted from the article but say I didn't represent that POV, so I would submit that yes, it's in there. It is true that travel money, like all money, is in short supply at the CPSC. But the question that several people quoted are asking is: if this travel is important and valuable, why not pay for it with agency funds and avoid the appearance of impropriety?

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Former Fed, again: If I am naive, thank heavens that is still possible.

I agree in general -- I thought our Ethics Officer stretched things a bit in allowing one well-connected colleague to continue in his job when his wife got a job that posed what I would consider a very delicate ethical problem for their household.

But travel -- that was another matter. Maybe that was the one area she played it safe. I didn't work at any other agencies so I didn't know others might draw the lines differently, or that the standard was so open to interpretation.

Thanks.

Elizabeth Williamson: Call me a fellow idealist.

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Elizabeth Williamson: Thank you everyone, for all your thoughts...they really do inform our coverage. Have a good weekend.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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