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House panel pulls contested Toyota documents from Web site

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House panel pulls contested Toyota documents from Web site

Christine Tierney / The Detroit News

Washington -- A congressional panel that posted documents Friday from a corporate whistleblower that appeared deeply critical of Toyota Motor Corp. removed them Monday from its Web site.

The documents, subpoenaed from a former Toyota lawyer now suing the automaker, suggested that "Toyota deliberately withheld records that it was legally required to produce in response to discovery orders in litigation," Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Friday.

A spokeswoman for Towns, Jenny Rosenberg, said the committee had taken down the online documents and was trying to verify whether they came from Toyota.

Toyota spokeswoman Martha Voss said the automaker's outside legal counsel, Ted Hester of King & Spalding in Washington, D.C., requested the removal of the documents, which he said were subject to Toyota's attorney-client privilege, from the site.

The committee's decision to remove the documents comes as Toyota officials prepared for the third hearing in two weeks into the company's and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's handling of two major Toyota vehicle recalls.

David Strickland, the new head of NHTSA, considered too green a week ago to testify before Congress, will appear today before the Senate Commerce Committee probing the same topic. The session starts at 10 a.m.

Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles worldwide in the past three months, including some 6 million in the U.S., mostly to prevent uncontrolled acceleration of Toyota and Lexus vehicles linked to 2,600 accidents since 2001.

For Toyota, even more damaging than the size of the recalls are allegations that the Japanese automaker was slow to acknowledge defects, or possibly concealed them. Towns asked Toyota on Friday to respond to the charges in the documents obtained from former Toyota lawyer Dimitrios Biller that Towns called troubling.

Toyota said in a statement last week that it "strives to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards in its legal and regulatory practices. It is not uncommon, however, for companies to object to certain demands for documents made in litigation."

A Texas court had blocked Biller from releasing the documents, but the congressional subpoena superseded that ruling.

Jeff Caponigro of Caponigro Public Relations Inc. said the documents' sudden removal is likely to reinforce the views of both those who feel Toyota should be sanctioned, and of those who think it is being treated unfairly.

"At this point, it seems people are starting to support one side or the other," Caponigro said. "There are people who think that if Toyotas are unsafe, they ought to be grilled, and others who feel Toyota is being ganged up on and beaten to a pulp."

Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of the automotive research site Edmunds.com, called on the U.S. Transportation Department on Monday to investigate reports of sudden, unintended acceleration across the industry and not just at Toyota.

"Clearly, Toyota has much to answer for regarding past decision-making, communications and priorities. I fear, however, that a critical point is getting lost," Anwyl wrote.

Based on a review of NHTSA's own data, Edmunds has found that "every car company has a level of complaint volume from consumers relating to vehicles that suffered unintended acceleration."

At today's hearing, Strickland will take questions for the first time on the agency's handling of the Toyota recalls. He was on the roster to testify at the first congressional hearing Feb. 23, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he would speak for the department, which includes NHTSA.

When asked why Strickland, who was present at the hearing, was not taking questions, LaHood said Strickland had been in the job barely 40 days. "I'm taking responsibility for this," LaHood said.

Strickland, a former Senate aide, was sworn in as NHTSA administrator on Jan. 4. By then, Toyota and the Transportation Department already were butting heads.

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100302/AUTO01/3020333/1148/House-panel-pulls-contested-Toyota-documents-from-Web-site#ixzz0h1rIvAwp

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