Former NHTSA Head Blasts Coziness Between Watchdog Agency and Auto Industry

LaHood responded by saying he'd "read the reports of that and we've looked into it." He stated that the law requires that former Department of Transportation (DOT) employees who went to work for a company that does business with DOT, "you cannot communicate on issues that you dealt with at DOT."

"They can work for Toyota," said LaHood, "but they cannot come back and talk about issues that they worked on."

LaHood said that he agreed with Burton that "this law probably should be tightened up."

NHTSA

During a March 2 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, LaHood was questioned more closely about the roles of Tinto and Santucci by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D.-N.D., and Barbara Boxer, D.-Calif., who cited recent news reports the two men had been involved in discussions with NHTSA officials about limiting an investigation of sudden acceleration accidents with Toyotas.

"I am deeply concerned about reports that former NHTSA employees who were later employed by Toyota may have played a role in influencing the result of NHTSA safety investigations," said Boxer.

In response to questions from Sen. Dorgan, LaHood said an investigation into the matter showed that the former NHTSA officials did not violate ethics rules because they did not negotiate on issues they were involved with while at the agency.

"We went back and looked at the two employees," said LaHood. "And everything that we can tell at this point is they did work for Toyota and they did talk to people at DOT, but not in an area where they were responsible.

"It does not appear that they were engaged in activities that they were prohibited by law from engaging in," said LaHood.

"I also said to another committee, Senator Dorgan, that I think this law needs to be tightened up," said LaHood. "But we found no violation for these two employees."

Santucci has testified in a pending lawsuit that in the two years he worked at NHTSA he handled two matters involving Toyota, neither of which involved sudden acceleration.

At today's House hearing NHTSA administrator David Strickland repeated that no ethics laws were violated by Santucci and Tinto and that "everything they did was fully compliant" with federal law. However, Strickland acknowledged that their situation could create the perception of a conflict of interest, saying, "I'm not going to quibble on appearance, perception is reality." Strickland said he would work to ensure an "arm's length distance" for NHTSA employees moving into private employment.

Claybrook today 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," said Claybrook.

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