Public records a dirty business at CPSC

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By Mary Schwager, national consumer columnist for Examiner.com

There’s a very scary situation looming inside the federal agency that’s supposed to regulate and oversee our safety when it comes to defective products: The Consumer Product Safety Commission. When someone makes a Freedom of Information Act request for information regarding complaints about a product, the agency allows companies it monitors a say in what information is released.

I posted an article about this on the Examiner’s website:  

It all started in March 2009, when Electrolux issued a recall for one of its cordless vacuums and told owners not to use their vacuums until a replacement part could be shipped to them. As the clock ticked and spring turned into summer, people with dirt collecting on their floors waited at their mailboxes. When the parcel with the part still didn’t show, consumers logged on and complained to me. After I posted a follow-up article about the complaints, the company wrote me directly to say it was working on the problems and the number of complaints was small.

Is this true? We may never know. On July 22, 2009, in a Freedom of Information Act request, I asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission how many complaints it received from consumers upset about this recall and the wait for replacement parts.

I immediately got an email back from the CPSC saying it would process my request. Then nothing. I continued to ask the CPSC what’s up with my request. A couple of my emails went unanswered. Then on August 28, 2009, I got this response:

 Good afternoon Mary,

Sorry about the delay in responding to your email. The Clearinghouse just informed me that they have not completed the search for records but they will do so in the next week or so. As soon as they provide the information to our office, we will process under FOIA for you. By the way, your FOIA request number is 09-F-00916 (for future reference).

Alberta

More time passed. More silence from CPSC.

On October 14, 2009, I sent this email:

Alberta,
It’s been many months now… What is the latest on this FOIA now please?
Thanks!
Mary

More silence. On October 23, 2009, I tried again:

Hey Alberta,
Wow! This is taking a long time. What’s the latest with this?
Thanks!
Mary

On November 10, 2009, I received an email from CPSC asking for my mailing address. I responded right away, figuring the agency was mailing me the complaints. I received the ultimate waste of our taxpayer dollars. The CPSC spent $1.05 in postage to mail me, in a large brown envelope, two pieces of paper. The highlights: The CPSC says before it can release any information to me about customer service related complaints it has to “release a copy of my letter to the firm.” Electrolux then has 15 days to respond. The CPSC adds in its letter to me, “If the company claims that the information is inaccurate or confidentiality for proprietary information, we must evaluate these comments and renotify firms if we overrule any claims.” So if the company says, “Oh, no, no those complaints can’t be true…” the CPSC then decides if it’s going to release the info to me.

The kicker: The CPSC says it will take more than 15 days for this to happen, but I should be “assured that we are handling your request as quickly as possible.”

I received an email from a reader saying the agency is considering changing the way it handles FOIA requests. This is the time for supporters of the First Amendment to speak up. I encourage those who have some thoughts about the process to send them to the CPSC.

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One Response to “Public records a dirty business at CPSC”

  1. Colby Lavin Says:

    Ms. Schwager, Thank you for covering this important topic. I work for small start up called WeMakeItSafer and while we are not doing the same work as you, we are also trying to keep unsafe products out of the hands of consumers and children. Our focus is different – we use product safety and recall information to help people and businesses manage their belongings/inventory so that everyone is aware of which products need to be taken out circulation. We believe that we have the best product recall search ( http://wemakeitsafer.com/RecallsStart.php ) and recall data ( http://wemakeitsafer.com/RecallStatistics.html ) available anywhere. I am very interested to see the resolution of your issue and how the changes at CPSC might improve the flow of information. Thank you.

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