Calling NHTSA a "lapdog, not a watchdog," Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the agency must adopt "tougher standards" for safety officials who go to work for the auto industry. Claybrook testified today at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection examining NHTSA operations.
Claybrook, who served as NHTSA administrator during the Carter Administration, said she has found 40 cases of former NHTSA and Department of Transportation officials who went to work for the auto industry, including 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. Claybrook included information on the cases in her prepared testimony today.
While ties between NHTSA and Toyota are currently under scrutiny because of alleged safety defects in Toyota vehicles, Claybrook's 40 cases 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. NHTSA should impose a longer "cooling off" period, said Claybrook, contending that the auto industry has become too cozy with the agency.
"Auto companies, including Toyota, treat the agency with contempt," said Claybrook in her prepared testimony.
In her testimony, Claybrook 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 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, , according to Santucci's testimony in a civil lawsuit.
"We discussed the scope," Santucci testified. "I think it worked out well for both the agency and Toyota."
After repeated questions about Tinto and Santucci at a series of hearings on Toyota, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress earlier this month that an investigation by his department found that he men had not broken the law in discussing safety issues with their former bosses.
Rep. Dan Burton, R.-Ind., raised the issue of Santucci and Tinto during the House Oversight Committee's Feb. 24 hearing on Toyota, asking Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood if there had been "some kind of a sweetheart arrangement with some of the people that preceded you working at NHTSA." Burton mentioned "two NHTSA employees who now work for Toyota," and asked LaHood, "Are you familiar with that at all, sir?"
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."
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.