Claim: Toyota withheld evidence

WASHINGTON — Toyota withheld documents it was legally required to turn over in liability lawsuits the company faced to avoid revealing information contained in Toyota's secret "Books of Knowledge," a congressional committee chairman said Friday.

Congressional investigators said they had found evidence that Toyota Motor Corp. "deliberately withheld" evidence in lawsuits related to vehicle safety, exhibiting a "systematic disregard for the law."

The allegation, made Friday by Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, came two days after Toyota's chief executive appeared before Congress asking forgiveness for the automaker's handling of the issue of sudden acceleration.

A Toyota official could not immediately be reached for comment.

In a three-page letter sent to Yoshimi Inaba, Toyota's top official in the U.S., Towns details a review of company documents obtained by the committee from Dimitrios Biller, a former lawyer for the company who handled product liability lawsuits. The committee subpoenaed some 6,000 documents from Biller late last week in anticipation of its hearing.

Although the documents do not relate directly to the issue of unintended acceleration, they do speak to the company's handling of safety disclosures in general, and potentially lift a veil on what several members of Congress described as a culture of secrecy at both the House Oversight hearing and a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday.

In the documents, Biller explains: "The Books of Knowledge contain information on how to design vehicles and component parts (including safety systems like seat belts, side curtain airbags). The information does not relate to any one particular vehicle; the information relates to all vehicles. The information is essentially design principles and philosophies that serve the foundation for how Toyota designs its vehicles."

The documents had previously been protected from public distribution by several courts, and Biller, who is embroiled in several lawsuits with Toyota, had been seeking the right to release them to the Los Angeles Times.

The memos, written by Biller to other officials at Toyota, describe a failed attempt to produce evidence in vehicle rollover lawsuits.

"Frankly, it is simply not acceptable for a ... company with 30 billion yen sitting in the bank to not take action and devote the resources to fulfill its discovery obligations," Biller wrote in a September 2005 memo to Eric Taira, another Toyota attorney.