Note to Consumer Product Safety Chief Nord: It’s a Little Late to Seek Ethics Advice

Nov. 6, 2007

Note to Consumer Product Safety Chief Nord: It’s a Little Late to Seek Ethics Advice

Statement of Laura MacCleery, Director, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

A federal agency that is supposed to ensure consumer safety must practice the highest ethical standards. But ethical standards of any height are missing when it comes to the business practices and travel junkets of Nancy Nord, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

At the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing today, members of Congress should be sure to ask Nord whether her chummy relationship with industry has contributed to the CPSC’s lax oversight of imported and other consumer products. They also should amend the statute to assure that CPSC commissioners and staff do not travel or accept entertainment on industry’s tab.

It begs credulity that in the wake of the travel scandals of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Nord did not blink an eye at accepting lavish trips from businesses and lobbyists who had – or were going to have – business before the CPSC.

In fact, since 2002, Nord and her predecessor, Hal Stratton, took trips to China, Spain, San Francisco, New Orleans and a golf resort in Hilton Head, S.C. – paid for by the toy industry, fireworks interests and manufacturers of products ranging from space heaters to disinfectants. Most of those footing the bill were awaiting – or soon would be awaiting – official decisions from agency regulators.

Nord last week issued a public statement attempting to wash her hands of the ethical mess by claiming she had followed ethics rules that have been “in place for 14 years,” and she said that the trips had been approved by her handpicked ethics officer within the agency. Nord has said she plans to seek a review by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE).

While it is preferable that Nord would seek ethics advice from the OGE, rather than relying on the patently weak guidance of the CPSC’s ethics officer, both Nord and her officers should have known better. Do they really need someone else to explain the straightforward federal ethics code that prohibits regulators from accepting travel and gifts from businesses they regulate when it would cause a “reasonable person … to question the integrity of agency programs and operations”? That is why other executive branch agencies and their ethics officers have turned down similar offers of industry-funded travel junkets.

The OGE has also failed in its mission to affirmatively ensure that government officials don’t accept industry favors and are aware of the gravity of violating conflict of interest rules. The OGE should do a far better job of making sure that advice given by the more than 6,000 ethics officers scattered across the federal government actually addresses ethical lapses.

When it comes to consumer safety, the public needs to be assured that our chief safety regulators are defending consumer interests, free from the influence and affluence of corporate interests with lavish gifts and travel at their disposal.