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Revolving door turns 180 degrees: Consumer head goes anti-consumer
When President Bush needed to fill the vacant post of Consumer Product Safety Commission chairman in 2002, he selected Hal Stratton, co-chair of New Mexico's Lawyers for Bush in the 2000 campaign -- even though Stratton had no background in consumer advocacy and hadn't even wanted the job.
And now, after four lackluster years as the administration's point man on consumer safety, Stratton has resigned so he can work for a high-powered law firm that specializes in shooting down class-action lawsuits filed by consumers.
A revolving-door approach to public service is nothing new. But Stratton's case -- like that of Mike Brown, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- illustrates how troubling this can be when a political appointee is entrusted with responsibility affecting millions of people.
"Stratton never showed a deep commitment to product safety," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America. "Clearly, product safety was a low priority for the Bush administration."
Janell Mayo Duncan, senior counsel at Consumers Union, echoed this sentiment.
"The Consumer Product Safety Commission needs strong leadership," she said. "We didn't see that leadership during Stratton's tenure. It was a big disappointment."
Specifically, consumer advocates say that despite increases in product recalls and penalties, Stratton's term as chairman was characterized primarily by insufficient funding and an exodus of experienced staffers.
Last month, leading consumer groups lodged a complaint with the commission over a proposed rule change that they say weakens the requirements for companies to report a potentially dangerous product.
"It was not a good tenure," Weintraub said.
Stratton succeeded Ann Brown, who'd been appointed by President Bill Clinton and previously served as vice president of the Consumer Federation of America.
In a press release last week, the Midwest law firm Dykema Gossett said Stratton will be in its Washington office and brings "a unique understanding of the various federal regulatory agencies of interest to our clients."
Dykema says its client base includes "individuals, publicly held companies, hundreds of privately held corporations, limited and general partnerships, associations, hospitals and managed-care networks, banks and financial institutions, and retailers."
It boasts that it "has defended literally hundreds of class actions filed across the country, from California to Florida," and has particular expertise in the automotive, banking, insurance, health care, retail and manufacturing industries.
Among other cases, the firm's Web site says Dykema blocked consumers from banding together to sue General Motors over allegations that 3,000 GM vehicles sold in California were equipped with defective transmissions.
Reached by phone, Stratton told me he didn't realize that Dykema was seen as a go-to firm for corporations facing class-action lawsuits.
"I wasn't aware they had that reputation," he said. "That's good to know."
He said he realized recently that it was time for him to move on from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"You should only do these jobs for so long," he said. "I got to the point where I felt like I got done about 85 percent of what I could do, and then it becomes repetitious."
Stratton, 55, a former New Mexico attorney general, acknowledged that he hadn't initially seen himself as a consumer champion. He'd pushed instead for the position of solicitor for the Interior Department after Bush was first elected in 2000.
When the president instead offered him the chairmanship of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Stratton said he was underwhelmed.
"I had to sleep on it," he said. "I had to research it. And then I realized I could do it."
Stratton said he doesn't understand why consumer advocates give low marks for his chairmanship of the commission. "I know I was fighting the good fight, and I know I was doing my job," he said.
Nancy Nord, a commissioner who's now serving as acting head of the agency, said the criticism of Stratton is misplaced. "Hal had a very strong commitment to product safety," she said.
Stratton said he's particularly proud of enacting a rule earlier this year that raises flammability standards for mattresses, which the commission estimates could save as many as 270 lives per year.
But Ed Mierzwinski, director of the U.S. Public Interest Group's consumer program, said the rule is fundamentally flawed by a last-minute, industry-crafted change that pre-empts tougher state regulations for mattress fires.
"Consumers need the ability to sue companies after they've been hurt," he said. "This rule takes away your right to sue in state court. Basically, it takes away more than it protects."
At Dykema, Stratton said he'll be "working with companies on product safety issues, maybe some advocacy work on their behalf."
According to the Center for Public Integrity, Dykema spent nearly $5.8 million lobbying on behalf of clients from 1998 to 2004. Its biggest clients (in dollar terms) include the city of Detroit, Manufacturers Life Insurance, and vehicle parts-makers ArvinMeritor and Federal-Mogul.
Mierzwinski at the U.S. Public Interest Group said it appears Dykema will be a good fit for Stratton.
"It's not shocking that someone who is so anti-consumer would end up at a firm that's anti-consumer," he said.