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U.S. transportation chief to meet with Toyoda

LaHood going to Japan to discuss Toyota safety

WASHINGTON – Signaling renewed vigor in the federal government’s scrutiny of Toyota Motor Corp., Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is heading to Japan to meet with company President Akio Toyoda.

LaHood said the department was examining 500,000 internal documents recently turned over by the automaker in hopes of determining when it began to withhold crucial information about defects in its vehicles. The government already has fined Toyota a record $16.4 million for failing to disclose safety problems related to sudden acceleration.

The volume of paperwork is much greater than originally anticipated, and the analysis could take months, LaHood said. So far, he said, the evidence suggests that Toyota ignored safety warnings from its U.S. engineers.

“Toyota was turning a blind eye or a deaf ear to their own people in North America,” the secretary told the Los Angeles Times in his first interview on Toyota’s handling of the sudden-acceleration crisis. “We really have to determine how long it has occurred, and we won’t know that until we complete our analysis.”

LaHood made his comments on the eve of his trip to Japan and his meeting Monday with Toyoda, where he plans to deliver a stern message that the U.S. will not tolerate violations of safety laws that jeopardize the public.

“They have to understand that safety is our No. 1 priority, always has been, always will be,” LaHood said. “We want to be sure they will do things the right way. And we may have to come back to them after reviewing documents and speak to them about what has taken place in the past.”

Toyota officials did not return calls seeking comment on the company’s expectations for the meeting.