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Toyoda will appear before Congress

February 19, 2010

Toyoda will appear before Congress

Toyota president to face questions next week about carmaker’s recalls, safety complaints

The Detroit News

Washington — Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda will testify before Congress next week — a dramatic move as the company seeks to stem the fallout from a series of massive recalls.

Toyoda, 53, the grandson of the company’s founder, has come under increasing pressure to come to Washington to address the cascading fallout from its handling of safety issues.

Toyoda’s acceptance came hours after the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee formally invited him to testify Wednesday.

Toyoda will be joined at the witness table by the company’s top North American official, Yoshimi Inaba.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received more than 2,000 complaints of runaway Toyota vehicles since 2000, alleging at least 34 deaths. Toyota has been harshly criticized by U.S. officials for failing to act fast enough.

Toyota has recalled 5.4 million vehicles in the U.S. over pedal entrapment concerns, and another 2.3 million for sticky pedal concerns. The company also has launched separate recalls of the Toyota Prius, Tacoma, and Camry, and is considering a recall of 487,000 2009-10 Corollas over steering complaints.

Towns and the ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, issued a subpoena Thursday for "all documents relating to Toyota motor vehicle safety" in the possession of Dimitrios Biller, who was the national managing counsel for Toyota’s American operation from 2003-07.

"The only way we can ensure that the safety needs of American drivers are being met is to examine, in a bipartisan fashion, exactly who knew what and when, and if appropriate and immediate action was taken to mitigate any danger to the American public," Towns and Issa said in a joint statement.

News reports surfaced this month noting accusations Biller had made regarding Toyota’s efforts to hide "evidence of safety defects from consumers and regulators," and to foster "a culture of hypocrisy and deceit."

Toyota has denied that, but Biller is blocked by court order from disclosing the documents to the public. Towns said this subpoena supersedes a court order.

Toyota’s lead witness at the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Tuesday hearing will be Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor USA Sales.

Toyoda has taken a more public role recently, holding three pres conferences in recent weeks and writing an opinion piece in the Washington Post, in which he apologized to Americans.

Sending Toyoda is a good move, experts said, and the automaker is in a position to negotiate the terms of his appearance.

"They can negotiate because this isn’t a legally binding requirement. It’s not a subpoena," said Jason Vines, spokesman for Ford Motor Co., whose CEO, Jacques Nasser, testified before Congress during the Explorer rollover crisis.

But David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, said Toyoda’s appearance is "like throwing someone to the wolves.

"They felt there was no option, but to send him but it’s a very dangerous situation," Cole said.

"The objective of Congress is to make him look like a fool. They want to look like grand wizards of Washington by really being tough."

The Japanese automaker did get some support Thursday from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who defended the company and suggested that "union activists" are pushing criticism of the automaker.

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