I've been to plenty of scientific meetings sponsored by federal agencies in the last several years where we have either had to do weird back door stuff just to have coffee breaks as part of the program or if we are sponsoring it and inviting federal scientists and staff they have to go off and have lunch on their own nickel so they won't run afoul of conflict of interest regs. They would be taking a "gift" from us if they ate food we paid for. OK. I get the principle. Some of it is bureaucratic and dumb but where do you draw the line? Now I find out where the big guys draw the line:
The chief of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and her predecessor have taken dozens of trips at the expense of the toy, appliance and children's furniture industries and others they regulate, according to internal records obtained by The Washington Post. Some of the trips were sponsored by lobbying groups and lawyers representing the makers of products linked to consumer hazards.
The records document nearly 30 trips since 2002 by the agency's acting chairman, Nancy Nord, and the previous chairman, Hal Stratton, that were paid for in full or in part by trade associations or manufacturers of products ranging from space heaters to disinfectants. The airfares, hotels and meals totaled nearly $60,000, and the destinations included China, Spain, San Francisco, New Orleans and a golf resort on Hilton Head Island, S.C. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn...110102732.html
They didn't even dress this stuff up as business but called them "gift travel." They aren't supposed to accept these gifts if a reasonable person would think it might influence programs or actions. I guess there aren't that many reasonable people, because it would seem to this perhaps unreasonable one that freebie trips to China and Hong Kong paid for by the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory -- whose only labs are in Asia -- might be construed as a conflict of interest, since they now are urging the CPSC to adopt their standards. CPSC's response?
But CPSC officials defend the industry-paid trips as a way for the agency to be in contact with manufacturing officials and hear their concerns despite a limited travel budget. Commission spokeswoman Julie Vallese said the agency's counsel and its ethics officers conducted "a full conflict-of-interest analysis" of the trips and stand behind their decisions.
"The mission of the agency and the benefits to consumer safety are two factors that are taken into consideration in approving gift travel," she said. Reports of the trips are submitted to the Office of Government Ethics, she added.
The mission and benefits to consumer safety are two factors they take into consideration (I would have thought they would have been the only ones, but what do I know?). So what are the others? It's not hard to imagine. Unfortunately.
This isn't business as usual, except for the Bush administration. They make their own rules. But it wasn't like that:
The agency's travel patterns during the Bush administration, detailed in internal agency documents, differ from those of the Clinton era. Ann Brown, who served as chairman from 1994 to 2001, traveled only at the expense of the agency or of media organizations that sponsored appearances where she announced product recalls, according to the documents provided.
"We hated to have an industry pay for our staff for anything," said Pam Gilbert, a lawyer who was executive director of the agency under Brown.
The records show that Nord and Stratton repeatedly accepted gift travel for events from industries subject to CPSC enforcement. In February 2006, the Toy Industry Association provided Nord with rail fare, two nights in a hotel, meals -- and even $51 to pay her Union Station parking bill -- to attend the American International Toy Fair in New York, one of the industry's biggest product exhibitions.
At least CPSC doesn't make free trips at the expense of trial lawyers (those are the lawyers that represent people injured by defective products). That would be a clear conflict. Of course the Bush CPSC commissioners don't mind traveling at the expense of the product liability defense lawyers, the ones that defend big corporations:
The records also detail several trips that were paid for by lawyers who represent manufacturers in product liability lawsuits.
In February, for example, Nord accepted more than $2,000 in travel and accommodations from the Defense Research Institute to attend its meeting in New Orleans on "product litigation trends," according to her report. The institute is made up of more than 20,000 corporate defense lawyers. In 2004, Stratton attended the group's meeting in Barcelona, at a cost to the group of $915 for his hotel room.
"They are the biggest government agency that would have impact on the stuff that we do," said Steve Coronado, a former chairman of the group's product liability committee, which has 3,000 members. "They've been very cordial and accommodating and gracious," he said of the agency's past three chiefs.
Coronado said Brown, the Clinton-era agency chairman, also spoke to the group. But agency records of her non-CPSC-financed travel do not list that trip, suggesting that it was not paid for by the lawyers group. Gilbert, the former CPSC executive director, called DRI's contribution toward Stratton's hotel bill in Spain "amazing."
The WaPo article (links above) have more sordid details, but you get the idea. Don't have a cup of coffee paid for by some academic conference but feel free to junket to China at the expense of toy manufacturers.
Who are the two latest Bush CPSC Commissioners?
Nord was a corporate lawyer at Eastman Kodak before her appointment. Stratton led Lawyers for Bush in his home state of New Mexico during the president's 2000 campaign and co-founded the Rio Grande Foundation, which advocates limited government and supports free-market economic principles.
I remain amazed at my own reaction to this. No matter how much I hear, each new revelation of Bush administration corruption still leaves me with my jaw hanging slack.