WASHINGTON — A senior Commerce Department official involved in U.S.-Japan trade talks announced his resignation Tuesday following disclosure that he had asked Japanese car manufacturers to consider hiring him as a lobbyist.
Robert E. Watkins, deputy assistant secretary for automotive affairs and consumer goods, "recused (disqualified) himself from all his duties as deputy assistant secretary and announced his intention to resign," said Claire Buchan, a department spokeswoman.
Watkins' resignation will become effective "as soon as the paper work can be taken care of," she said, but he will remain on the department payroll as a member of the staff of Charles Cobb, assistant secretary for trade development.
The resignation announcement came a day after the Associated Press reported that Watkins had suggested to Japanese automobile manufacturers that they consider hiring him as a lobbyist to counter "protectionist and xenophobic political action."
The disclosure of Watkins' Sept. 23 letter prompted calls for investigations earlier Tuesday by several members of Congress.
In a letter to Acting Commerce Secretary Bruce Smart, Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), requested an investigation to determine if Watkins' "personal ambitions may have undermined the U.S. negotiation position" at recently concluded talks with Japan on automobile parts.
The talks, which ended in August, failed to produce guarantees of more U.S. access to Japanese markets.
Watkins, who wrote that he was "uniquely qualified to establish and lead" a trade association to represent the Japanese manufacturers, enclosed a resume that noted his participation in the auto parts talks.
Watkins decided that "he couldn't be effective in his job as deputy assistant secretary. So he resigned," Buchan said.
"In looking for another job, there will be a number of issues it would be inappropriate for him to be directly involved with," she said.
Watkins had excused himself last week from making decisions involving automobiles and furniture after he received a response to a similar solicitation to the furniture industry, department officials said.
His resignation announcement came several hours after Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), took the House floor to demand that Watkins step down.
"Mr. Watkins' actions cast a shadow over the degree of Administration commitment in the MOSS (Market-Oriented Sector Specific) talks, especially since they accomplished so little," Levin said.
Levin, co-chairman of the auto parts caucus in the House, called Watkins' solicitation "double-dealing in bald form."
His comments were echoed by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), another caucus leader.
"I am absolutely outraged at the despicable behavior of one of this nation's leading trade negotiators who sold America down the river to line his own pocketbook," Kaptur said.