Former safety officials work for firms they regulated

WASHINGTON — Dozens of former federal officials are playing leading roles in helping carmakers handle federal investigations of auto defects, including those for Toyota's acceleration problems.

A Washington Post analysis shows as many as 33 former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration employees and Transportation Department appointees left those jobs in recent years and now work for automakers as lawyers, consultants, lobbyists and in other jobs that deal with government safety probes, recalls and regulations.

The reach of these former agency employees is broad. Their names appear on staff rosters for every major automaker, every major automotive trade group, and as expert witnesses and legal counsel for the industry in major auto safety class-action lawsuits.

Several former Cabinet members have gone on to work for automakers. Last week, Toyota hired Rodney Slater, the transportation secretary under President Clinton, to head its North American Quality Advisory Panel, which assists the company with quality and safety issues.

No law bans these officials from moving straight from government into industry. But critics of the revolving-door practice say that it has contributed to flaws in federal oversight and enforcement, and several members of Congress say legislation is needed to prevent former employees from conducting business with the agency for up to two years after leaving government jobs.

"The relationship is too cozy, and it is not an equal playing field," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who is pushing for revolving-door reforms. "They need to insulate themselves a bit. People of our country expect there will be checks and balances and that someone will be looking out for them."

Some former agency and department officials say the revolving-door practice is common in every industry and gives companies a fuller understanding of the federal government.

The issue will come up at a hearing Thursday held by a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Over the past several weeks, congressional hearings into Toyota Motor Corp. have highlighted the instrumental roles played by two former NHTSA officials — Christopher Santucci and Chris Tinto — in managing federal investigations and a recall demanded by their former employer.

In 2003, as problems with Toyota's sudden acceleration intensified, Santucci gave two weeks' notice and joined Toyota's team, working under Tinto, who was his Toyota contact. Tinto had gone to work for Toyota nine years earlier. Both had worked in the agency's Office of Defects Investigation.

An internal Toyota document, subpoenaed by a House committee, showed Toyota officials boasted about the effectiveness of the effort in which Santucci and Tinto were involved, saying it saved the company as much as $100 million.

Santucci and Tinto declined to comment, but Toyota spokesman Ed Lewis said that both men have "always acted in a manner consistent with the highest ethical standards and professionalism in the performance of their duties for Toyota."

Former NHTSA lawyers Kenneth Weinstein and Erika Jones also do legal work for Toyota. Weinstein, who created the agency's Early Warning Reporting System to identify defects, serves as a company lawyer handling sudden-acceleration lawsuits. Jones also is working on these cases and is providing legal advice to Toyota on how it should handle the congressional probes.

Jones declined an interview request. Weinstein did not return calls seeking comment.

Other carmakers also like to hire federal expertise.

Jacqueline Glassman, a former NHTSA chief counsel and then deputy administrator, joined the federal government in 2002 after working for DaimlerChrysler. Now she works at Hogan & Hartson, a law firm that represents Nissan and Mercedes.

"The government, private industry and (non-governmental organizations) all hire individuals with expertise," she said. "Having knowledge about how industry operates helps the government regulate and make policy.... Finally, former government officials can help companies understand their legal responsibilities and what is expected of them."

Every major automaker has several such intermediaries.

Former agency compliance engineer Amanda Prescott now works for Ford. Former agency director of the Office of Crashworthiness Research, Ralph Hitchcock, now works for American Honda Motor Co. And past agency administrator Donna Steed is a partner at StratComm, a Washington public relations and lobbying firm that represents General Motors Corp.

The expertise now used against NHTSA includes fighting standards on vehicle parts and components.

For example, Keith Brewer, a former mechanical engineer for NHTSA, who led safety tests on everything from rollovers to tires, now works for the Rubber Manufacturers Association. That organization, funded by the tire industry, financed a legal review last summer that is now being used to fight the agency's efforts to create a new rating system that would provide consumers with information on tire safety and durability.

Records show Brewer's research was used in the effort. He did not return calls seeking comment.

Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said that President Obama, by executive order and within hours of taking office, placed a two-year ban on senior presidential appointees' ability to contact their former agencies. But most of the officials who went through NHTSA's revolving door are not covered by the ban.