On Friday, the Washington Post reported that Consumer Product Safety Commission acting chair Nancy Nord and her predecessor, Hal Stratton, accepted dozens of trips paid for by companies and industries they oversee. (Nord, you might remember, is in the spotlight for objecting to legislation that would give her agency more money and authority.) Nord defended her actions by saying that they all went through the agency’s usual approval process, though she also called for an outside review of CPSC travel policies after news of her trips sparked anger in Congress.
In today’s Washington Post, Elizabeth Williamson provides more details about Nord’s and Stratton’s industry-sponsored travel and gets ethics experts’ reactions to the situation.
Williamson examined documents related to the internal reviews of nearly 30 industry-financed trips and found that in nine of the cases, the sponsoring industry had issues before the commission. Evidently, the general counsel’s office gave these trips the green light anyway. Of course, the general counsel actually accompanied Nord on one of these jaunts – to the Toy Industry Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco, with accommodations at a four-star hotel. (It must’ve been okay, though: an “alternate ethics officer” signed the relevant form!) During Stratton’s tenure, the then-general counsel came along on a trip to China, and the Toy Industry Association got the tab for $18,000 in expenses.
If the thought of the head of the CPSC chief getting free trips from the industries affected by CPSC actions disturbs you, you’re not alone. Williamson reports:
Ethics experts who reviewed the documents took issue with Nord’s overall defense of industry-financed travel.
“It’s never a good idea to have your expenses paid for by a party or parties who will be advocating on a matter before your agency,” said a career ethics lawyer at another government agency who requested anonymity because he was not cleared to comment for the record. “It’s legal . . . but it is clearly an abuse of discretion. . . . It exhibited at best enormous insensitivity, and at worst outright disdain for the ethical principles of government service.”
In February, Nord, who was a corporate lawyer before taking her post, was asked to recruit paying attendees for a meeting of lawyers who defend manufacturers in product-liability cases. In offering to pay for her trip, Defense Research Institute lawyer Steven Coronado wrote: “I do ask that you assist in marketing by using the brochures you have received and getting them into the hands of people you think might be interested in attending.”
Danielle Brian, who directs the Project on Government Oversight, called the request “creepy.” After reviewing documents for several trips, she said: “It’s as if they’re tone-deaf. . . . In every explanation for why ‘it’s not a conflict,’ they make a forceful case for why it is.”
R. David Pittle, who was appointed by President Richard M. Nixon to help found the agency in 1973 and served as a commissioner until 1982, said: “The CPSC is the only thing standing between a consumer and a potentially dangerous product. . . . For me, it doesn’t matter if these trips and gratuities pass some legal test — it’s highly inappropriate public policy.”
“Potentially dangerous products” isn’t a hypothetical description. It includes things like cribs where babies have gotten stuck and asphyxiated; magnetic toys that can rip through children’s intestinal tissue when swallowed; and toys, jewelry, and lunchboxes containing dangerous levels of lead. We need a strong CPSC, where the leadership obeys not only the letter of the law, but the law’s spirit of protecting the public.