c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — When Inez M. Tenenbaum took over the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2009, she found an agency in turmoil and uncertain of its mission to ensure that tens of thousands of products on U.S. store shelves did not present a danger to buyers.

By the end of her four-year term, which came to a close Friday, she can say that she has presided over a significant increase of the agency’s powers. And Tenenbaum, 62, has not been shy about using them. The agency recently leveled its highest fine ever — $3.9 million — against Ross, the discount retailer, because it continued to sell what the commission said was defective children’s clothing, even after warnings from the agency.

She and the safety commission also waded into one of the most contentious topics in the sports world: protecting football players from head injuries. The result was the Youth Football Brain Safety initiative, which called for the replacement of youth league helmets with safer models paid for by the National Football League, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the NFL Players Association.

“I just felt like it was something that needed to be done,” she said.

But before she could make much headway on issues, Tenenbaum had to persuade consumer advocates that she would work for them while reassuring manufacturers that the agency would not be unfair in carrying out its new powers. It was a difficult juggling act that some industry officials say Tenenbaum has managed to pull off.

“What I was most glad about is that she treated us and others in the industry as a resource rather than the enemy,” said Carter Keithly, president of the Toy Industry Association. “We didn’t agree on everything, but she was always fair.”

For the Youth Football Brain Safety initiative, the NCAA, the NFL and the players association kicked in a total of $1 million to pay for the helmet replacements.

“The support of Chairman Tenenbaum and the CPSC played an important role in making our helmet replacement initiative a reality,” Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, said in a statement. “We really appreciated her personal involvement and the agency’s in the work to make our game better and safer.”

Yet the commission under Tenenbaum’s leadership has not been exempt from criticism. Some of the biggest complaints followed the decision by agency lawyers to hold Craig Zucker, the chief executive of the company that made Buckyballs, liable for the recall of the magnetic children’s toy, even after the company was dissolved. Manufacturers have argued that holding an individual responsible for a widespread, and expensive, recall sets a disturbing example and would discourage companies for being open in their dealings with regulatory bodies.

Tenenbaum said she could not comment on the case because it was continuing.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, one of the smallest agencies in government, was created in 1972. With a budget of about $120 million and 530 employees, the agency annually monitors more than 15,000 imported and domestically made products. Before Tenenbaum took the reins, it had been increasingly criticized in the light of deaths and injuries that critics said were the result of the agency’s being too close to the industries it regulated.

Tenenbaum, a lawyer, had no product safety experience when she was nominated for the job by President Barack Obama. She had come up through the Democratic ranks in South Carolina, a state dominated by Republicans, serving as a legislative staff member as well as the state’s superintendent of education. In 1994, she ran an unsuccessful primary campaign for lieutenant governor, and 10 years later lost to Jim DeMint, a Republican, in the race to replace Ernest Hollings, a Democrat who was retiring, in the Senate.

Before her arrival at the safety commission, the Bush administration had sought to ease what it considered costly rules that placed unnecessary burdens on businesses, and the agency’s budget was largely gutted. Staff was cut, and safety initiatives were stalled or dropped.

In 2007, a Washington Post investigation found that Nancy Nord, who was then the agency’s acting chairwoman, and her predecessor, Hal Stratton, had taken dozens of industry-sponsored trips that were paid for in full or in part by trade associations or manufacturers of products that were regulated by the agency. Nord said the trips were legal.

Faced with mounting criticism from consumer groups, Congress passed legislation that year that overhauled the agency. The legislation — which passed 89-3 in the Senate and 424-1 in the House — gave sweeping new powers to the agency that the commission did not take full advantage of until Tenenbaum took office.

Tenenbaum and her staff were asked to put in place hundreds of rules and regulations involving products from baby cribs to backyard grills that sold for more than $1.4 trillion annually. The regulations set new limits for lead in children’s products, created a public database to catalog product safety complaints and put mandatory standards in place for children’s bed rails, cribs and swings. The new law also gave the agency the ability to increase potential civil penalties to $15 million from less than $2 million.

“She stepped in at a difficult time and has done an incredible job,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, an advocacy group.


In stepping down, Tenenbaum will end an arduous commute. She left her home in a rural section of Lexington County, S.C., every Monday to catch a 6 a.m. US Airways flight to Washington. She makes the reverse commute Thursday nights.

“I’ve gotten my work done; it’s time to move on,” said Tenenbaum, who will take a job with the law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Columbia, S.C.

She said she was most proud of the efforts to make children’s products safer. On an office shelf, she keeps photos of several children who died as a result of defective products.

“This made me want to work harder to save children’s lives,” she said, adding that she would continue to be an advocate for the safety of children in her new job.

The change will also allow her to spend more time with her husband, Samuel.

“If I had taken another term, he would have been 77 and I would have been 69,” she said. “That’s not how I wanted to spend the last quarter of our lives.”