DETROIT (AP) — A former transportation secretary turned lobbyist selected by the government to monitor the recall of millions of Fiat Chrysler vehicles also represents an air bag maker responsible for millions of recalled vehicles.
Rodney Slater, who ran the Transportation Department for four years under President Bill Clinton, has been lobbying the department and Congress on behalf of Takata Corp. of Japan regarding air bag issues, lobbying records reviewed by The Associated Press show.
Takata's air bag inflators can explode too forcefully, firing shrapnel into the passenger compartment. They're linked to eight deaths and have led to the recall of tens of millions of vehicles, including 4 million made by Fiat Chrysler.
Fiat Chrysler, also known as FCA, is under an order from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to hire an independent monitor to oversee the company's recalls in response to misbehavior involving 23 recalls. The safety administration selected Slater from a list of three candidates supplied by Fiat Chrysler. The decision was announced by the automaker on Friday.
Gordon Trowbridge, a spokesman for NHTSA, said Slater had disclosed his representation of Takata. "The company and NHTSA both examined that and determined that for the purpose of monitoring Fiat Chrysler's compliance with the consent order that it was not a conflict of interest," Trowbridge said.
A Fiat Chrysler spokesman declined to comment. Slater didn't respond to a message that was left Friday afternoon seeking comment.
Safety advocates say Slater's representation of Takata is a clear conflict of interest.
"You can't have someone overlooking their recalls that also represents a company that makes defective parts," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety. "You can't have someone who has two masters, and Slater has two masters."
Joan Claybrook, who headed the traffic safety administration under President Jimmy Carter, said she strongly disagreed with NHTSA's decision to appoint Slater.
"Chrysler has hired Slater because they want a yes man," said Claybrook, a safety advocate. "This completely undercuts the important work NHTSA has done in showing Chrysler has violated safety recall rules. There is a clear need for an independent monitor."
Currently, Fiat Chrysler is managing three recalls that involve faulty Takata inflators. Repairs have been slow because Takata and other air bag makers can't make replacement parts quickly enough.
One of the 23 recalls in which Fiat Chrysler was accused of misconduct involved Takata air bag inflators in Ram pickup trucks, according to NHTSA documents. The company didn't notify owners about the potentially deadly inflators for more than five months, which violates the law, the documents said.
Slater is a partner with Washington lobbying and law firm Squire Patton Boggs. Congressional lobbying disclosure reports show the firm has been paid more $1.3 million since December to represent TK Holdings Inc., Takata's parent company. The reports list Slater as lobbying Congress and the Transportation Department on air bag issues.
The reports show TK Holdings hired Squire Patton Boggs last December. Slater, co-leader of the firm's transportation practice, is listed is as an attorney representing TK Holdings. The firm has been paid nearly $1.3 million by TK since then.
In July, the government hit Fiat Chrysler with a record $105 million penalty for failing to tell customers about recalls, failing to make recall repairs and other infractions.
Lowy reported from Washington.