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House hearing sets stage for rough week for Toyota

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House hearing sets stage for rough week for Toyota

Exec's testimony met by phrases like 'sham,' 'killing machines'

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington -- Tuesday's day-long House hearing on Toyota's safety recalls was part circus and part endurance test, punctuated by tears and vitriol.

And it was just the opening round of three hearings planned over the next week, including a House hearing today at which Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda is to be questioned.

About 200 dealers and others held a press conference and rallied on Capitol Hill before Tuesday's hearing, warning Congress against conducting a "witch hunt." Some dealers said their sales are down 30 percent to 50 percent because of the cascade of bad publicity from multiple recalls.

"How did we suddenly overnight become the villain? I don't get it," said Houston-area dealer Paul Atkinson.

Toyota Motor Sales USA chief Jim Lentz and his entourage arrived in two recalled -- but repaired -- Toyota Highlanders provided by a Virginia dealer. Dozens of Capitol Police escorted Lentz and his party, and tried to keep reporters at bay.

Lentz sat in the hearing room, from noon until he finished testifying shortly before 5 p.m., without a bite or a break.

"We stubbed our toe," he said. "We lost sight of our customers."

At least 200 reporters, camera crews and photographers from around the world swarmed the hearing.

They included dozens of Japanese reporters and camera crews -- some of whom ran after the hearing's presiding member, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, as he left to vote on the House floor during a brief recess.

It might not be the last time he gets chased: Stupak said he would likely have several more Toyota hearings.

The crush of international media was larger than crowds for 2008 congressional testimony of Detroit's Big Three CEOs.

About 30 blind visitors -- many with guide dogs -- were in the building for a meeting and filled the crushed hallway along with Japanese TV crews and hundreds of others who couldn't get inside the hearing.

The pummeling that Toyota has suffered, in coverage of its recalls and in vehicle sales, extended to the hearing room.

Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. called Toyotas "literal killing machines."

A shaken Lentz fought back tears when he talked about his brother's death two decades ago in a car accident.

"I know what those families go through," he said. The government has received reports of 34 fatalities alleged to have been a result of runaway Toyotas.

Tears also were shed by a Tennessee woman who survived a harrowing accident in a runaway Lexus, and by safety advocate Sean Kane. Both testified.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said she owned three Toyota vehicles, including a 1988 Camry in which she brought home her newborn daughter. The daughter, now 20, drives that car today and another daughter will drive a Camry when she gets her license in a couple of months.

"Let's make sure these cars are safe for all American teenagers and adults to drive," DeGette said.

From The Detroit News:


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