Toyoda to testify before U.S. lawmakers

by Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Toyota president Akio Toyoda accepted on Thursday a formal invitation to testify at a hearing to be held next Wednesday.

The House Oversight Committee sent the invitation Thursday morning. Toyoda had initially said he would not appear before the committee but would instead send North America chief Yoshimi Inaba.

But late Thursday, Toyoda released a short statement: "I have received Congressman Towns' invitation to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on February 24 and I accept. I look forward to speaking directly with Congress and the American people."

The invitation sent by Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., reads: "There appears to be growing public confusion regarding which vehicles may be affected and how people should respond. In short, 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."

After Toyoda announced his acceptance, Towns released his own statement, with Ranking Member Darrell Issa, R-Calif,: "We are pleased Mr. Toyoda accepted the invitation to testify before the Committee. We believe his testimony will be helpful in understanding the actions Toyota is taking to ensure the safety of American drivers."

Earlier Thursday, the committee issued a subpoena for "all documents relating to Toyota motor vehicle safety and Toyota's handling of alleged motor vehicle defects and related litigation" that are held by Toyota's former U.S. counsel Dimitrios Biller.

Biller has claimed that he possesses documents that proved Toyota hid key findings of safety defects. Even before Thursday's news, Toyota had filed an injunction to prevent Biller from making those documents public, but a Committee aide said the Committee's subpoena overrides the state-level injunction.

"Mr. Biller is a former Toyota attorney who left the company in 2007," Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight said in an e-mailed statement. "He would have no knowledge about Toyota matters since that time and is not a reliable source of information."

Toyota will continue to fight Biller's allegations, Knight said.

Mr. Toyoda has been criticized for being slow to speak up regarding the issues. The carmaker has recently faced a string of massive recalls and, only yesterday, became the subject of a second ongoing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation into potential safety problems with its cars.

Also, late Thursday, the NHTSA announced it had officially opened an investigation into possible steering problems with Toyota's Corolla compact cars.

The investigation involves reports that Corolla cars can wander or drift at highway speeds. Seven people have been injured in incidents that may have been related to the problem, according to a NHTSA report.

Toyota plans to cooperate fully in the investigation, a Toyota spokesman said.

Gene Grabowski, head of the crisis communication practice for Washington-based Levick Strategic Communications, said Toyoda "needs to be very well-prepared."

Grabowski's firm has worked with more than a dozen witnesses called to testify on Capitol Hill, he said, and the most important thing they all must remember is to remain humble. A witness must remember that the members of Congress need to be seen helping their constituents and the best thing for a witness to do is to play his part.

"Your job in a hearing is to assist the members of Congress," he said, "and sometimes that means taking some lumps."

If Mr. Toyoda is smart, Grabowski said, he'll come to Washington a few days early to meet privately with the Congressional members he'll be testifying for.

"If you go in cold and they don't know you," Grabowski said, "they're far more likely to attack you." To top of page

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