Industries paid for safety officials’ trips

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 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.

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 such as space heaters and 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 CPSC 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 CPSC 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.

Government-wide travel regulations state that officials from agencies such as the CPSC 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.”

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.

“This is a blatant violation of the ethics code,” said Craig Holman, an expert on governmental ethics law for the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. The rules allow nonfederal sources to pay for trips, “but not if you’re a private party with business pending before the agency,” he said.

The records show that Nord and Stratton repeatedly accepted gift travel for events from industries subject to CPSC enforcement. In February 2006, the Toy Industry Association provided Nord with rail fare, two nights in a hotel, meals — and even $51 to pay her Union Station parking bill — to attend the American International Toy Fair in New York, one of the industry’s biggest product exhibitions.

Joan Lawrence, the association’s vice president who oversees toy safety, said that “I have heard some enforcement officials say that they consider attending vital” because “they are able to see new products before they hit retail shelves” and suggest safety improvements. She added that “approximately 50 percent of the CPSC budget is used for children’s products.”

But Lawrence could not say why, given the importance of the event and the industry, the agency did not pay for its own travel. “If they came up with the money, that’s OK,” she said. “The educational component, of course, is our priority, and that’s why we pay for the chairman.”

Vallese, the CPSC spokeswoman, said Nord gave two speeches at the meeting, toured “new toy exhibits,” watched “product demonstrations” and participated in “product safety discussions.”

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