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Safety regulators accepted free trips

U.S. consumer agency defends travel paid for by industries.

By Washington Post
Published November 3, 2007


WASHINGTON - 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.

The records show that the officials repeatedly accepted gift travel for events from industries subject to enforcement. Some of the trips were sponsored by lobbying groups and lawyers representing the makers of products linked to consumer hazards.

The records document nearly 30 trips since 2002 by the agency's acting chairman, Nancy Nord, and the previous chairman, Hal Stratton, that were paid for in full or in part by trade associations or manufacturers of products ranging from space heaters to disinfectants.

The airfares, hotels and meals totaled nearly $60,000, and the destinations included China, Spain, San Francisco, New Orleans and a golf resort on Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Notable among the trips - commonly described by officials as "gift travel" - was an 11-day visit to China and Hong Kong in 2004 by Stratton, then chairman. The $11,000 trip was paid for by the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, an industry group based in an office suite in Bethesda, Md., whose only laboratories are in Asia.

The commission says that at the time, the group had no pending regulatory requests. But since then the fireworks group has urged the commission to adopt its safety standards, an idea that is still pending, according to an organization newsletter.

Consumer groups and lawmakers intensified their criticism of the safety commission this summer after several highly publicized recalls of Chinese-made toys that contained hazardous levels of lead. Critics have long charged that the agency has become too close to regulated industries, opting for "voluntary" standards and repeatedly choosing not to take legal action against businesses that refuse to recall dangerous products.

Governmentwide travel regulations state that officials from such agencies should not accept money for travel from nonfederal sources if the payments "would cause a reasonable person ... to question the integrity of agency programs or operations."

Commission 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.

Several ethics experts and lawyers say the two administrators' travel records suggest a conflict of interest.

"This is a blatant violation of the ethics code," said Craig Holman of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

Fast facts

On the road, gratis

- In February 2006, the Toy Industry Association provided acting chief Nancy Nord with rail fare, two nights in a hotel, meals and even $51 for parking to attend the American International Toy Fair in New York.

- Ex-chairman Hal Stratton's more than 25 trips included a trip to China that the Toy Industry Association paid $8,000 to help finance. "Everybody wants to see the chairman," he said.

- Several trips were paid for by lawyers who represent manufacturers in product liability lawsuits. In February, Nord accepted more than $2,000 in expenses from the Defense Research Institute, which is made up of 20,000 corporate defense lawyers, to attend a meeting in New Orleans on "product litigation trends." In 2004, Stratton attended the group's meeting in Barcelona, at a cost to the group of $915 for his hotel room.

What about agency funds?

Q: One of the reasons given for taking the travel was necessity and lack of funds, yet isn't this the same agency that just told Congress it didn't need more funding?

A: Nancy Nord has opposed legislation 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.

[Last modified November 3, 2007, 01:29:47]

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