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Toyota Chief Agrees to Testify Before House Panel

Source: NY Times

Posted on 19 Feb 2010

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The president of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, agreed on Thursday to appear before Congress next week to discuss the recall of millions of vehicles for sudden acceleration problems. The move puts him squarely in position for the first time as the company’s chief advocate in Washington.

Mr. Toyoda, the grandson of Toyota’s founder, Kiichiro Toyoda, plans to testify Wednesday at a session held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the second of three hearings on safety issues set for the next two weeks.

It will be Mr. Toyoda’s most prominent appearance since he became the company’s president last June, in the middle of a financial crisis.

His decision reverses Toyota’s initial plan to send only executives from Toyota’s American operations to the hearings, two in the House and one in the Senate.

On Thursday morning, Edolphus Towns Jr., a Democrat of New York who is chairman of the committee, wrote to Mr. Toyoda inviting him to appear. Mr. Toyoda accepted the invitation Thursday afternoon.

“I look forward to speaking directly with Congress and the American people,” Mr. Toyoda said in a statement.

Safety regulators in Washington said this week that they would examine whether Toyota had acted quickly enough in recalling about 8.5 million vehicles after it found possible problems with their accelerator pedals.

Toyota says the pedals could become stuck or trapped under a floor mat, causing vehicles to accelerate unexpectedly.

“There appears to be growing public confusion regarding which vehicles may be affected and how people should respond,” Mr. Towns said in his letter to Mr. Toyoda. “In short, the public is unsure as to what exactly the problem is, whether it is safe to drive their cars, or what they should do about it.”

Mr. Toyoda’s presence would help to clarify the situation. In a statement Thursday, Mr. Towns and the committee’s ranking Republican member, Darrell E. Issa of California, said they welcomed his decision.

“We are pleased Mr. Toyoda accepted the invitation to testify before the committee,” they said. “We believe his testimony will be helpful in understanding the actions Toyota is taking to ensure the safety of American drivers.”

Mr. Towns wrote in his earlier letter, “As you know, there is widespread public concern regarding reports of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota motor vehicles. Toyota has recalled millions of its vehicles and even halted production. In addition, there are reports that this problem may have been the direct cause of serious injury and even death.”

Industry analysts and public relations specialists said it was vital for Mr. Toyoda to appear before Congress to demonstrate leadership. But company officials were reluctant to send him because of the contentious atmosphere that can often result.

The chief executives of Detroit’s automakers, as well as the Japanese tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone were summoned before Congress over the last decade, spending hours answering questions from lawmakers.

James E. Lentz III, the president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., is scheduled to speak on the company’s behalf at the Tuesday hearing. Yoshimi Inaba, the chief executive of Toyota Motor North America, had been scheduled to appear before the oversight committee.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which holds its hearing March 2, has not released a list of those who will testify.

The oversight committee also expanded its investigation Thursday by issuing a subpoena to a former lawyer for Toyota, Dimitrios Biller.

The committee sought documents relating to Toyota vehicle safety, its handling of defects and related litigation from Mr. Biller, who was the national managing counsel for Toyota in the United States from 2003-7.

He is suing the company, alleging wrongful termination and emotional distress, and accusing it of a “culture of hypocrisy and deceit” and of hiding proof of safety defects from regulators and the public.

Toyota said Mr. Biller’s claims were “inaccurate and misleading” and that he would have “no knowledge about Toyota” since leaving three years ago.

Separately, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Thursday opened an investigation into complaints about steering problems on the 2009 and 2010 Toyota Corolla sedan and Matrix crossover.

The agency had received more than 200 complaints about the Corolla, which was the world’s top-selling car last year and the most popular choice of American drivers who traded in gas guzzlers under the government’s cash-for-clunkers program.

Many of the complaints say the car can suddenly veer to the left or right at highway speeds.

Twelve of the complaints relate to crashes, resulting in 12 injuries and no deaths. Six complaints said the car rolled over or came to rest on its side, and in three other crashes the car went over an embankment.

Toyota this week said it was considering a Corolla recall, which would affect more than 500,000 vehicles in the United States. Most of them already are included in the floor mat and pedal recalls. In a statement, it said it would cooperate with the recall.