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Probe of Toyota intensifies

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Probe of Toyota intensifies

U.S. House panels get documents detailing 3 recalls

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington -- Congressional investigators began ramping up a probe of Toyota Motor Corp. on Tuesday, a day after federal regulators sought a $16.4 million fine against the automaker.

Lawmakers are taking action because regulators said documents from Toyota prove it knowingly failed to quickly recall vehicles with possibly sticky gas pedals, justifying the fine.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee and its oversight subcommittee received most of the 70,000 pages Toyota turned over to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for its examination of three recalls. Investigators spent Tuesday reviewing the documents.

Even though Toyota hasn't yet decided whether to appeal the fine, the congressional committee is taking the unusual step of moving ahead with its own investigation. The review of documents might lead to hearings similar to those involving Toyota and NHTSA officials in February and March.

It also might help efforts to increase NHTSA's power and boost the fines automakers face for failing to conduct recalls.

The documents, which include internal Toyota e-mails, prompted NHTSA on Monday to propose the $16.4 million fine against Toyota for failing to recall 2.3 million vehicles for sticky pedals quickly enough.

It is the largest civil fine against an automaker.

"While the committee has not yet had a chance to go through and review these documents, NHTSA is expected to brief committee staff next week," said Michelle Begnoche, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, who chairs the Energy and Commerce oversight committee.

Auto manufacturers are legally obligated to notify NHTSA within five business days if they determine that a safety defect exists. Toyota took at least four months, according to NHTSA, which has documents showing the automaker knew of the problems in September 2009. The recall began in January.

Toyota has until April 19 to challenge the fine; the company said it is still deciding its next move.

"Toyota has and will continue to practice its philosophy of satisfying consumers with high quality vehicles that are safe and reliable," spokeswoman Martha Voss said.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters in Chicago that it would not surprise him if the department's investigation of two other Toyota recalls turns up more evidence.

NHTSA said Toyota knew of the sticky pedal defect since at least Sept. 29. That day, Toyota issued repair procedures to distributors in 31 European countries and Canada to address complaints.

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100407/AUTO01/4070338/1148/auto01/Probe-of-Toyota-intensifies#ixzz0kQ09j0DN

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