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NTSB chief takes job with ties to Chrysler

As its watchdog, Jim Hall praised DaimlerChrysler. He may lobby for the automaker. That bothers critics.

In his final two years as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jim Hall gave lots of praise to automaker DaimlerChrysler.

He appeared at DaimlerChrysler news conferences to promote its child safety campaign. He gave the company an NTSB award and lauded the company on the Today Show and Good Morning America.

Two months ago, Hall resigned from the NTSB and joined a law firm that does a lot of work for the automaker. A Washington magazine last month quoted Hall saying he will be a lobbyist for the car company.

Critics call this a flagrant case of the "revolving door," where government officials join the companies they once regulated.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group, said Hall's example shows that government officials worry too much about themselves and not enough about the public interest.

A public official's "judgments may be tempered because (they) want to get a good job," Ditlow said.

Peter Eisner, managing director of the Center for Public Integrity, another government watchdog group, said, "Hall hasn't even made a semblance of maintaining independence. The public interest isn't served by people who have a personal agenda."

Hall says DaimlerChrysler deserved his praise and that his comments had nothing to do with his job search. He said he was approached by many law firms and decided to join Dillon & Lungershausen _ now named Dillon Hall & Lungershausen _ because it was a small firm that would allow him to build a practice focusing on transportation safety.

"There was no quid pro quo," Hall said. "What I had to do as a safety board chairman, I did with integrity."

Hall said he will help clients with crisis communications and regulatory issues. He said that DaimlerChrysler is a major client for the firm but that it's unclear what role he will play with the company.

However, a column item in National Journal last month said Hall indicated he would lobby for the car company.

His firm has worked extensively for DaimlerChrysler A.G., the German parent company, but has no contract with its U.S. subsidiary, DaimlerChrysler Corp., said Elaine Lutz, a spokeswoman for DaimlerChrysler Corp.

"As far as Jim Hall joining the firm, we had nothing to do with it and no knowledge of it until after it happened," Lutz said.

Federal law puts limits on government employees who are seeking a job outside the government.

In general, the law says they should not work on any issue in their agency that might affect the financial interests of their prospective employer. But the rules have more flexibility for government employees negotiating with law firms that have many different clients. There also are fewer restrictions for government actions that involve an entire industry rather than a single company.

Hall said he could not remember when he was first contacted by the law firm but said he was careful to check with the NTSB's general counsel to make sure he was following the law.

Tom Dillon, Hall's new law partner, said that he approached Hall in "mid to late fall last year" but that they did not negotiate until after Hall left the NTSB in mid January.

"Fit for a Kid'

As NTSB chairman for the past seven years, Hall, 59, was often the agency's chief spokesman on airplane crashes and auto safety. He earned $130,200 per year.

The NTSB, an independent agency that investigates aviation, highway and marine accidents, does not directly regulate the automakers. But as the nation's premier safety agency, it often reviews car safety and makes recommendations to car companies about improving their products.

In January 1999, Hall sent a letter to DaimlerChrysler and other automakers urging them to establish "fitting stations" to help parents install child seats. DaimlerChrysler responded in June 1999 by announcing the "Fit for a Kid" initiative, which allows anyone with any make of car to have a free child seat inspection at thousands of Chrysler dealers.

At the news conference announcing the program, Hall had lavish praise for the company.

"Today," he said, "one of the world's automotive leaders has answered our call and is putting children first in automobile safety!"

In February 2000, he praised the company during interviews on Today and Good Morning America. He told ABC's Charles Gibson that the 20 minutes parents spend getting their seats checked at a Chrysler dealer "may be the most important 20 minutes in your child's life."

In June 2000, Hall presented DaimlerChrysler with the NTSB's "outstanding achievement award."

Ditlow, whose group clashed with Hall about new airbag rules, said it's inappropriate for the NTSB to be giving awards.

"They should just be calling the balls and strikes and let someone else pick the most valuable player," Ditlow said.

"Exceeded expectations'

Hall has praised the safety work of other car companies, including General Motors and Ford. But he was most effusive about DaimlerChrysler because it was the first to respond to the NTSB's recommendation.

Elaine Weinstein, now the head of the NTSB's office of safety recommendations and accomplishments, said she and the former director, Barry Sweedler, initiated the idea to praise DaimlerChrysler. By having Hall praise the automaker, they hoped the other car companies would feel pressure to adopt the same program.

In late November 2000, Weinstein wanted the NTSB to give the company another honor. She wanted the agency's board members to say that DaimlerChrysler's response to the child seat recommendations had "exceeded expectations," which was a rare distinction. The NTSB had granted that status only 18 times in more than 10,000 recommendations, and never for a car manufacturer. The board members, including Hall, approved that on Nov. 28.

On Dec. 7 _ just six weeks before Hall left the NTSB _ DaimlerChrysler issued a news release boasting about the NTSB's "historic distinction." It quoted Hall saying the company's response "surpasses what we hoped for in terms of quality and scope, and does so at no cost to families."

Hall said he was aware that DaimlerChrysler was a client of Dillon's firm. But Hall was talking with several law firms and did not believe his consent on a DaimlerChrysler safety recommendation was a conflict of interest.

Hall, a Tennessee lawyer with strong ties to former Vice President Al Gore's family, earned high marks for his accomplishments as NTSB chairman.

Highway safety groups praised his work on behalf of children. Aviation groups have praised his accomplishments for flight data recorders, airplane fuel tanks and rudder system improvements on the Boeing 737.

Hall also was the target of criticism. Some inside the NTSB felt he put too much emphasis on assisting families after plane crashes instead of the agency's primary mission of investigating accidents. Auto safety experts complained he did not support tougher standards on advanced airbags. Officials at Boeing complained that the NTSB became overly politicized during Hall's tenure.