My longtime friend, Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has been a dedicated consumer advocate for years. Calling NHTSA a “lapdog, not a watchdog,” Joan believes the agency must adopt “tougher standards” for safety officials who leave and go to work for the auto industry. Joan testified at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection examining NHTSA operations.
Joan has found 40 cases of former NHTSA and Department of Transportation officials who went to work for the auto industry. Among the 40 are Sue Bailey, a former NHTSA administrator, who went to work for Ford Motor Co., and Rodney Slater, a former Secretary of Transportation, who was recently asked by Toyota to head up a special quality advisory board. While ties between NHTSA and Toyota are currently under scrutiny because of alleged safety defects in Toyota vehicles, the 40 cases mentioned by Joan also involved all three major U.S. manufacturers, BMW, Honda and Suzuki, as well as auto trade associations.
Under federal law, an employee in the executive branch is barred for two years after leaving government service from representing any matter under the employee’s previous official responsibility. Joan believes NHTSA should impose a longer “cooling off” period. I agree that the auto industry has become too cozy with the agency. Joan said “Auto companies, including Toyota, treat the agency with contempt.” In her testimony, Joan cited the case of two former NHTSA safety investigators who went to work for Toyota’s Washington, D.C. office. NHTSA officials sharply narrowed the scope of a 2004 investigation into random acceleration in Toyota vehicles after meeting with the men, Chris Tinto and Chris Santucci.
An ABC News investigation found that federal safety investigators decided to exclude reports of sudden acceleration that lasted for more than a few seconds and those that could not be brought under control with the application of the brake – in effect the most serious cases – after the meeting with Tinto and Santucci, who were hired to be Washington, D.C. representatives of Toyota. “Longer duration incidents involving uncontrollable acceleration” were deemed to be “not within the scope of this investigation,” according to a 2004 memorandum in NHTSA’s files.
The memorandum was written on March 23, 2004, shortly after NHTSA official Scott Yon met with Tinto and Santucci. In testimony in a civil lawsuit, Santucci admitted to this. “We discussed the scope,” Santucci testified, adding, “I think it worked out well for both the agency and Toyota.” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was questioned about Tinto and Santucci at the series of hearings on Toyota. He told Congress that an investigation by his department found that the men had not broken the law in discussing safety issues with their former bosses.
Joan in her testimony called for “stricter scrutiny” of NHTSA engineering staff members who move immediately from the agency to a regulated company. “The public loses faith in the government when top staff sell their expertise gained at government expense to the regulated agency,” Joan said. Joan made several valid points in her testimony and hopefully Congress was listening.
Source: ABC News
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