April 8, 2010 in Business

Toyota V.P. urged automaker to ‘come clean’

Larry Margasak And Ken Thomas Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Five days before Toyota announced a massive recall, a U.S. executive at the company wrote in an internal e-mail: “We need to come clean” about accelerator problems, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.

“We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet,” wrote Irv Miller, group vice president for environment and public affairs. “The time to hide on this one is over.”

The recently retired Miller wrote the Jan. 16, 2010, e-mail as Toyota officials were on their way to Washington to discuss the problems with federal regulators. On Jan. 21, Toyota announced it would recall 2.3 million vehicles to address sticking pedals in six vehicle models.

“We better just hope that they can get NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to work with us in coming (up) with a workable solution that does not put us out of business,” Miller wrote.

The e-mail was addressed to Katsuhiko Koganei, executive coordinator for corporate communications for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

“I hate to break this to you but WE HAVE A tendency for MECHANICAL failure in accelerator pedals of a certain manufacturer on certain models,” Miller’s e-mail began, with several words in capital letters.

In a memo earlier that day, Koganei wrote Mike Michels, vice president of external communications, “Now I talked with you on the phone, we should not mention about the mechanical failures of acc. pedal because we have not clarified the real cause of the sticking acc pedal formally, and the remedy for the matter has not been confirmed.”

Koganei further wrote that Toyota executives were concerned that news of the mechanical failures “might raise another uneasiness of customers.”

The subject line said the e-mail was in regard to a draft statement to respond to an ABC News story.

A Toyota official did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday on the e-mails. Miller declined comment.

The Transportation Department has assessed a record $16.4 million fine on Toyota for failing to alert the U.S. government to the safety problems about the sticking accelerator pedals quickly enough. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday that Toyota made a “huge mistake” by not disclosing the safety problems sooner.

Concerns about sticking gas pedals and complaints from Toyota owners in the U.S. were rising at the end of 2009, according to documents obtained by the AP. The documents show that on Sept. 29, Toyota’s European division issued technical information “identifying a production improvement and repair procedure to address complaints by customers in those countries of sticking accelerator pedals, sudden rpm increase and/or sudden vehicle acceleration.”

In mid-January, Toyota held internal meetings “to discuss status of production changes and to prepare for meetings with NHTSA” on Jan. 19, according to the timeline. Two days later, Toyota announced it would recall 2.3 million vehicles to address the sticking pedals.

The documents obtained by the AP were among 70,000 pages of papers turned over to government investigators.

© Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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