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Safety panel's chief says taking paid-for trips is good policy

She tells Congress that when regulated firms pick up the tab, it saves resources for testing and education on standards.

November 07, 2007|Theo Milonopoulos | Times Staff Writer

washington -- Under fire for possible ethical lapses and backing away from enforcement at a time of rising problems, the beleaguered head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission on Tuesday defended her acceptance of travel from companies she is charged with regulating.

"I would much rather spend $900 on paying for more testing of toys and more resources at our laboratory than I would on airfare and a hotel to go to present our toy standards at an international conference," Nancy Nord, chairwoman of the commission, told a congressional panel.

Nord told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that industry-subsidized travel expenses were a common practice throughout the federal government and did not violate federal ethics laws. But lawmakers said other agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, had policies that do not allow regulated industries to pay for travel.

"It's legal," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). "But it is clearly an abuse of discretion. It exhibited at best enormous insensitivity and at worst outright disdain for the ethical principles of government service."

Nord said the travel had helped her use limited enforcement funds to educate toy manufacturers and importers about safety standards.

The safety commission is responsible for overseeing more than 15,000 types of products. It has about 400 staffers, fewer than half the number on hand when the agency was established in 1973.

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) called on Nord to resign after Nord opposed legislation that would have boosted the agency's budget and allowed it to hire more staff.

The House and Senate are considering bills that would increase staffing, require independent testing of all children's products and provide whistle-blower protections for industry employees. The legislation would also ban lead in children's toys and increase the maximum penalty for safety violations to $100 million.

But Nord said such a get-tough policy might push the commission away from its core mission of promoting safety. She said that significantly increasing civil penalties might compel manufacturers to dispute alleged violations more frequently, diverting agency resources from safety inspections to litigation costs.

"People are not going to sit and work with us," Nord said. "Instead, they're going to fight us."

theo.milonopoulos@ latimes.com

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