Toyota faces further government scrutiny

WASHINGTON (AP) — The chairman of a House panel investigating Toyota’s massive recalls urged the company’s president Thursday to testify next week as the government opened a fresh investigation into Corolla compacts over potential steering problems.

“The public is unsure as to what exactly the problem is, whether it is safe to drive their cars or what they should do about it,” Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., wrote to Akio Toyoda in the wake of safety questions involving gas pedals, floor sets and brakes on various Toyota products.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, asked whether the president had an opinion on whether Toyoda should testify, said, “The administration hopes Toyota would do all it can to rectify this ‘dangerous situation.’”

“Everybody, I think, is rightly concerned about the recalls that have happened,” Gibbs told reporters traveling with Obama aboard Air Force One.

Toyoda, the grandson of the Japanese automaker’s founder, had said previously that he did not plan to attend a series of hearings scheduled to start on Capitol Hill next week. But he had told reporters in Japan earlier that he would consider appearing if invited.

Towns, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote Toyoda that the committee wants him to “clarify” how the car manufacturer is addressing a widening recall crisis. The controversy over safety issues has burgeoned over the past four months with the recall of roughly 8.5 million vehicles.

Also Thursday, the Transportation Department formally opened a preliminary investigation into 487,000 Toyota Corolla and Corolla Matrix compacts from the 2009-2010 model years over concerns about steering problems at highway speeds. The government has received 168 complaints and reports of 11 injuries and eight crashes on the Corolla and Matrix compacts with electric power-steering.

The Corolla investigation was expected after Toyota said it was looking into complaints of power-steering difficulties with the vehicle and considering a recall as one option.

Reports of deaths in the U.S. connected to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the toll of deaths allegedly attributed to the problem reaching 34 since 2000, according to new consumer data gathered by the government.

Toyota, the world’s No. 1 automaker, did not immediately say whether the executive would testify. Josephine Cooper, Toyota’s group vice president for public policy and government and industry affairs, said the company was “giving it every consideration and will give an answer just as quickly as we can.”

Invitations to congressional hearings are rarely rejected by those asked to appear. The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, has urged Toyoda to meet with lawmakers and has said that if necessary, the committee should compel the executive’s testimony by subpoena.

In a separate move, the Oversight Committee subpoenaed Toyota documents from Dimitrios Biller, a former counsel for Toyota’s U.S. operations from 2003-2007. The committee said it was seeking documents related to motor vehicle safety, the company’s handling of defects and related litigation.

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

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