Newspaper article International New York Times

Carmakers' Close Ties to Regulator Scrutinized ; after Policing Industry, Some Former Officials Are Paid to Defend It

Newspaper article International New York Times

Carmakers' Close Ties to Regulator Scrutinized ; after Policing Industry, Some Former Officials Are Paid to Defend It

Article excerpt

Questions are being raised about the relationship between former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials and the automobile industry.

There was nothing unusual about a letter with Jacqueline S. Glassman's name on it discussing life-threatening safety defects and requiring more information from a manufacturer; Ms. Glassman was once chief counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, then deputy administrator, and, briefly, acting administrator.

But the letter last month was not from her, it was to her.

Ms. Glassman left the agency in 2006 to join a top law firm, and her clients include Graco Children's Products, which is refusing to recall almost 1.8 million child restraints that the safety agency says pose a hazard to infants. The letter to Ms. Glassman was demanding information about that refusal.

Ms. Glassman is now a partner at Hogan Lovells, where her expertise is described as including counseling on "responding to government investigations."

She is among many former top N.H.T.S.A. officials who now represent companies they were once responsible for regulating, part of a well-established migration from regulator to the regulated in Washington.

Ms. Glassman says she is simply bringing her expertise where it is needed. "Former government officials can help companies understand their legal responsibilities and what is expected of them," she wrote in an email. "All of these situations are governed by the recusal and ethics rules that everyone is expected to follow. I've always strictly adhered to those rules."

But despite assurances like Ms. Glassman's, the revolving door between the agency and the automotive industry is once again coming under scrutiny as lawmakers investigate the decade-long failure by General Motors and safety regulators to act more aggressively on a defective ignition switch that G.M. has linked to 13 deaths.

When David J. Friedman, acting administrator of the highway safety agency, testifies before House and Senate panels on Tuesday and Wednesday, a central question will be why the agency failed to push for a recall.

To critics, the agency's failure to act is another example of how it is not as effective as it could be. One reason often cited is a shortage of investigators. Another is that former agency employees join law firms and help defend automakers and other companies being regulated.

Those firms are buying "the intimate knowledge of how the agency works, the agency processes and procedures, the personalities at the agency," said Allan J. Kam, a safety consultant based in Bethesda, Md., who worked at the safety agency for 25 years and retired as its senior enforcement attorney.

That knowledge of how the agency works can "absolutely" make a difference when it comes to protecting consumers, said Joan Claybrook, who headed the agency from 1977 to 1981.

Former agency employees know how to present information to maximize chances that it will limit a recall or even divert an investigation, she said, "and that is the harm because they are hired guns essentially."

The issue stirred enough concern that Barbara Boxer, one of the senators who will be questioning Mr. Friedman on Wednesday, introduced an unsuccessful bill in 2010 that would have barred the highway safety agency's employees from working for an automaker for three years. Ms. Boxer, Democrat of California, said there appeared to be "an all-too-cozy relationship between former N.H.T.S.A. officials and the auto industry."

In a statement, the agency said, "The Obama administration has established the most rigorous ethics rules of any administration to close the revolving door on lobbyists and keep the interests of the American people first."

Other questions have been raised in the past, with inconclusive answers. One example involves Christopher Santucci, a former N.H.T.S.A. investigator who in 2003 went to work for Toyota, a company he had previously investigated. …

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