LaHood blasts lobbyists for leaked plan to fight cell phone restrictions

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood blasted a lobbying firm Wednesday for circulating plans to oppose limits on the use of mobile devices in vehicles, calling it a "dangerous" effort to undermine public safety.

An attempt by lobbying firm Seward Square to galvanize industry opposition to LaHood's agenda leaked online last week. LaHood seized on the document Wednesday in an almost unheard-of opportunity for a public official to take on an industry front group before it picks up steam.

LaHood said a coalition such as the one proposed by Seward Square would be "designed to deflect attention away from texting and talking behind the wheel, the most risky types of distracted driving."

"This new lobbying effort, led by Seward Square Group and others, jeopardizes the progress we've made by undermining our message about public safety," LaHood said.

Seward Square Group spokesman Babak Zafarnia said the lobbying proposal on mobile devices has been shelved. The firm had circulated a proposal to form an industry front group made up of insurance companies, handset manufacturers, phone companies, car makers and others to counter LaHood’s agenda.

"Our collaborative effort simply sought to expand the discussion to include other common forms of driver distraction," a statement from Zafarnia said. "We are pleased that the concept has met its goal of expanding dialogue on distracted driving; therefore, the proposed coalition is no longer being pursued."

LaHood's "distracted driving" campaign is aimed at spurring state regulations on the use of cell phones and other mobile electronic devices on the roadways. The electronics industry has found it difficult to push back against the campaign, which has a high-profile advocate in talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

LaHood touted the administration's achievements in fighting distracted driving Wednesday, including President Barack Obama's executive order prohibiting federal employees from texting while driving. He said the lobbying firm had put those efforts in harm's way. 

Seward Square's proposal document painted LaHood’s rhetoric as extreme and said the distracted driving debate had been “hijacked” by celebrities such as Winfrey.

The nonprofit Fair Warning received a leaked copy of the proposal and posted it online. 

The proposal, which also contains the name of the firm Eris Group, would have made former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Jim Hall, who is of counsel at Seward Square, a leader for the front group.



But Hall said at LaHood's press conference that he did not approve the proposal. He stopped short of saying he was unaware of the effort to galvanize industry, and he will remain of counsel at Seward Square. 



"A document with my name in it and containing inappropriate language I had not approved was circulated in meetings with the industry," Hall said. "In short, that document was not prepared by myself or my office and does not represent my opinions. I have no clients relating to this matter and I entered this discussion solely because of a desire to continue the unfinished work I began at the safety board," he said.



Eris Group's Jesse McCollum also distanced his firm from the proposal. "Eris Group is not part of nor is lobbying on behalf of" the proposed coalition, he said.

Seward Square is headed by Jamie Pericola, who worked for Hall as part of Hall & Associates, a consulting firm, and who also worked at NTSB as a Clinton appointee. Ali Amirhooshmand, a former aide to Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and a former senior vice president in the telecommunications practice at Cassidy & Associates, is also a partner for Seward.



The Consumer Electronics Association, which has pushed back against regulations at the state level, was not connected with the proposed coalition effort. It issued the following statement after the press conference:

"Driving while distracted is unsafe and unacceptable....Policy approaches should focus on driver behavior and activities rather than specific technologies or industries. Government and the private sector must work together to promote and encourage safe driving practices, and CEA is committed to continuing to work with the Department  of Transportation and all other stakeholders to prevent distracted driving."