Toyota faces criminal inquiry

News of subpoena over acceleration woes comes 2 days before CEO's testimony

February 23, 2010|By McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — — Federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into Toyota's safety troubles, the Japanese automaker confirmed Monday, as the company's leadership braces for tough questions in congressional hearings this week about its recent spate of recalls.

Toyota officials said the company on Feb. 8 received a subpoena from a federal grand jury in New York requesting documents related to unintended acceleration of some Toyota vehicles and the braking system of its popular Prius hybrid.

Toyota said it also received a subpoena and a voluntary request on Friday from the Los Angeles office of the Securities and Exchange Commission, seeking documents related to the unintended acceleration of certain Toyota models as well as the company's disclosure policies and practices.

Toyota, in a written statement, said it would cooperate with the investigations. And the automaker's president and CEO, in an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal, acknowledged that his company had stumbled badly.

"It is clear to me that in recent years we didn't listen as carefully as we should - or respond as quickly as we must - to our customers' concerns," wrote Akio Toyoda, who is the grandson of the company's founder.

The subpoenas come after Toyota turned over documents to committees in the Senate and House of Representatives over the weekend in preparation for three hearings that will focus on the acceleration issue, the role of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in investigating the problem, and whether the system or federal safety standards need to be adjusted.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee holds the first hearing today. Toyoda is set to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Wednesday. The Senate Commerce Committee will examine Toyota's woes next week.

"As for as this committee is concerned, the fact that Toyota is now the subject of a federal and SEC investigation does not in any way change our expectation for what we expect will be transparent and candid testimony from Mr. Toyoda," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The subpoenas and documents released to Capitol Hill are already posing potential problems for Toyota.

A 2009 confidential document in which Toyota claims a victory in saving $100 million by negotiating a limited recall of 2007 Camry and Lexus ES models for sudden acceleration problems smacked of boasting to some House oversight committee members.

The hearings and Toyoda's testimony are high-stakes moments for Toyota, which operates several major assembly plants in the U.S., directly employs 34,400 American workers, and claims that parts and components for its vehicles are indirectly responsible for 163,700 American jobs.

- The Associated Press contributed to this article

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