Toyota chairman Akio Toyoda last night performed a U-turn, telling a press conference in Japan he would go to Capitol Hill after suggesting earlier he would leave the lawmakers’ planned grilling over massive recalls to US executives. The Japanese government subsequently criticised Toyoda for not being more decisive on whether to face the US Congress.
Three congressional hearings in Washington have been scheduled.
Responding to an invitation to testify Before the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform [on 24 February at 1000EST (1500 GMT)], Toyoda said in a statement: “I have received Congressman Towns’ invitation to testify… and I accept. I look forward to speaking directly with Congress and the American people.”
The head of the embattled Toyota bowed to growing calls to testify in Congress as lawmakers demanded a whistleblower lawyer hand over potentially damning internal company documents on alleged safety defects.
A key congressional committee has subpoenaed former Toyota lawyer Dimitrios Biller, who has accused the world’s biggest car maker of hiding and destroying evidence of safety problems and of “a culture of hypocrisy and deception”, AFP reported.
Toyota is recalling over 8m cars worldwide for defects allegedly linked to more than 30 deaths in the United States that have sparked a host of lawsuits there which could cost the company billions of dollars in damages.
The report noted that Toyoda, the usually publicity-shy grandson of the company’s founder, was initially reluctant to appear before Congress but relented following Towns’ invitation.
“Since I received an official letter, I decided that I’m pleased to go. I want to speak there with all sincerity,” Toyoda told reporters.
“What I want to stress most is our cooperation in determining the causes (of the problems) and our firm stance on safety,” he added.
His announcement came as the committee asked Biller, a top US lawyer for Toyota’s US HQ in Torrance, California, from 2003 to 2007, to bring all documents he has relating to the automaker’s “handling of alleged motor vehicle defects and related litigation”.
Biller said the internal company documents showed the firm was hiding evidence of safety defects from consumers and regulators.
The lawyer, speaking to ABC News, has accused Toyota of hiding and destroying evidence and of “a culture of hypocrisy and deception”, AFP said.
Toyota has denied Biller’s claims, describing him as a disgruntled former employee, and both sides have been locked in a legal battle for some time.
AFP noted that US safety officials are probing whether Toyota dragged its feet on tackling the problems, and president Barack Obama’s transportation secretary Ray LaHood has vowed “to hold Toyota’s feet to the fire” to make sure its cars are safe.
Toyoda has faced mounting criticism about his handling of the crisis, the worst in Toyota’s history.
“President Toyoda should have announced his attendance much earlier as he has no choice but to appear before Congress under the current circumstances,” Tokai Tokyo Research Centre analyst Mamoru Kato told AFP.
“Toyota Motor hopes to calm the issue with his appearance, but it’s unlikely,” he said. “There is no sign of this blowing over as distrust in Toyota is quite serious, particularly in the United States.”
Japan’s transport minister on Friday criticised Toyoda for not being more decisive on whether to face the US Congress.
“It’s regrettable that there were flip-flops and talk that he would not attend,” Seiji Maehara told reporters.
Toyoda, 53, was long groomed for the top job and became the first member of the founding family in 14 years to take the reins last June.
The avid motor racing fan was criticised for being slow to appear in public after the mass recalls went global, but has now appeared before the media four times in about two weeks.
Toyoda is the grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, who founded the automaker in 1937, and the son of former president Shoichiro Toyoda.
When he was named last year to take the helm of the automaker, Toyoda said he was “sobered by the heavy responsibility”.
The family scion put the brakes on Toyota’s rapid expansion, which left it vulnerable to the global economic crisis and – critics have said – led to a weakening in its once-legendary quality control.
With its sales slumping following a string of safety issues, Toyota said this week that it was suspending output at two US plants for up to two weeks.
As just-auto has reported, Toyota will also idle its UK plant next month for two weeks and is to axe 750 jobs from August.