WASHINGTON -- In March 2005, the Consumer Product Safety Commission called together the nation's top safety experts to confront an alarming statistic: 44,000 children riding all-terrain vehicles were injured the previous year, nearly 150 of them fatally.
National associations of pediatricians, consumer advocates and emergency room doctors were urging the commission to ban sales of adult-size ATVs for use by children under 16. But John Gibson Mullan, the agency's director of compliance and a former lawyer for the ATV industry, said the current system of voluntary safety standards was working, according to a recording.
Months of research by Robin L. Ingle, then the agency's hazard statistician and ATV injury expert, did not support Mullan's analysis. Yet she would not get to offer a rebuttal.
"He was distorting the numbers in order to benefit industry and defeat the petition," Ingle said.
Under the Bush administration, industry-friendly officials have been installed at federal agencies that oversee the nation's workplaces, food suppliers, environment and consumer goods.
Top officials at the Consumer Product Safety Commission say they have enhanced protections for the American public. But they have also blocked enforcement actions, weakened industry oversight rules and promoted voluntary compliance over safety mandates, according to interviews and a review of commission documents.
The already tiny agency -- now just 420 workers -- has been pared almost to the bone. At the agency's cramped laboratory, a lone employee is charged with testing suspected defective toys from across the nation. Others workers quit in frustration.
Agency officials defend their record. "The commission is currently doing more to protect consumers than it has at any prior time in its history," said Nancy A. Nord, the acting chairwoman. "Even more could be done with greater resources."
Nord acknowledges that the agency has had to limit its focus; it investigates about 10 percent to 15 percent of the reported injuries or deaths linked to consumer goods, for example. But she also lists a record number of recalls -- 471 products -- last year.
Consumer advocates say the increased recalls and hazard reports make a different case: that too many flawed products are in the marketplace because the agency is not doing its job.