National

Feds to investigate Toyota's woes

WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into Toyota Motor Corp.' s safety problems and the Securities and Exchange Commission was probing what the automaker told investors, the company disclosed Monday.

Newly released internal documents showed that Toyota officials visited with U.S. regulators years ago who "laughed and rolled their eyes in disbelief" over safety claims.

Top Toyota executives were expected to testify at hearings today and Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

In a new filing with the SEC, Toyota said it received the grand jury request from the Southern District of New York on Feb. 8 and got the SEC requests Friday.

Toyota would not comment beyond its disclosure with the SEC.

A spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

House investigators said they believe Toyota intentionally resisted the possibility that electronic defects caused unintended acceleration in its vehicles and then misled the public into thinking its recalls would fix all the problems.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who will run Tuesday's hearing, said documents and interviews demonstrate that the company relied on a flawed engineering report to reassure the public that it found the answer to the problem.

In a letter to Toyota, Stupak said a review of consumer complaints shows company personnel identified sticking pedals or floor mats as the cause of only 16 percent of the unintended acceleration reports.

Some 70 percent of the acceleration incidents in Toyota's customer call database involved vehicles that are not subject to the 2009 and 2010 floor mat and "sticky pedal" recalls.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Stupak's committee raised questions about whether the agency lacked the expertise to review defects in vehicle electronics and said NHTSA was slow to respond to 2,600 complaints of sudden unintended acceleration from 2000 to 2010.

The government conducted only one investigation, beginning in March 2004, into whether electronic throttle controls could lead to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles and closed it a few months later. Since 2004, NHTSA has rejected four petitions from owners asking for investigations into sudden unintended acceleration in Toyotas.

As regulators looked into reports that accelerator pedals were becoming jammed in floor mats on Lexus ES350 sedans, a Toyota safety official told colleagues that NHTSA didn't appear to be concerned.

"I ran into a lot of different investigators and (Office of Defect Investigations) staff and when asked why I was there, when I told them for the (Lexus) ES350 floor mats, they either laughed or rolled their eyes in disbelief," wrote Chris Santucci, a former NHTSA employee who works for Toyota.

Toyota said it was reviewing the Stupak letter and would cooperate with the committee's inquiry. Transportation Department officials did not immediately comment.

  Comments