WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing tough questions in Congress, Toyota Motor Corp. said Monday that federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into the company's safety problems and the Securities and Exchange Commission was probing what the automaker told investors. Lawmakers pledged to ask executives about internal documents showing that Toyota visited with regulators who "laughed and rolled their eyes in disbelief" over safety claims.
The twin developments created new challenges for Toyota officials scheduled to testify during back-to-back hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday amid concerns that the company and federal regulators failed to take safety problems seriously. Congressional investigators are reviewing the Japanese automaker's recall of 8.5 million vehicles since the fall to deal with safety problems involving gas pedals, floor mats and brakes.
In a new filing with the SEC, Toyota said it received the grand jury request from the Southern District of New York on Feb. 8 and received the SEC requests on Friday.
It wasn't immediately clear what U.S. laws Toyota might have broken. A subpoena would specify why prosecutors sought company documents, but Toyota would not comment beyond its disclosure with the SEC. A spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment, saying it does not confirm or deny its investigations as a matter of policy.
The government could be looking into product safety law violations or whether Toyota made false statements to a federal safety agency involving unintended acceleration or the Prius braking system, said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. The SEC is seeking documents related to unintended acceleration as well as to its disclosure policies and practices, Toyota said.
In Congress, House investigators said they believe Toyota intentionally resisted the possibility that electronic defects caused unintended acceleration in their vehicles and then misled the public into thinking its recalls would fix all the problems.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who will run Tuesday's hearing, said documents and interviews demonstrate that the company relied on a flawed engineering report to reassure the public that it found the answer to the problem. In a letter to Toyota, Stupak said a review of consumer complaints shows company personnel identified sticking pedals or floor mats as the cause of only 16 percent of the unintended acceleration reports.
Some 70 percent of the acceleration incidents in Toyota's customer call database involved vehicles that are not subject to the 2009 and 2010 floor mat and "sticky pedal" recalls.
In a letter to NHTSA, Stupak's committee raised questions about whether the agency lacked the necessary expertise to review defects in vehicle electronics and said NHTSA was slow to respond to 2,600 complaints of sudden unintended acceleration from 2000 to 2010.
The government conducted only one investigation, beginning in March 2004, into whether electronic throttle controls could lead to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles and closed it a few months later. Since 2004, NHTSA has rejected four petitions from owners asking for investigations into sudden unintended acceleration in Toyotas.
As regulators looked into reports that accelerator pedals were becoming jammed in floor mats on Lexus ES350 sedans, a Toyota safety official told colleagues that NHTSA didn't appear to be concerned.
"I ran into a lot of different investigators and (Office of Defect Investigations) staff and when asked why I was there, when I told them for the (Lexus) ES350 floor mats, they either laughed or rolled their eyes in disbelief," wrote Santucci, a former NHTSA employee.
A month later, NHTSA issued an "equipment recall" of floor mats involving 55,000 Toyota Camry and Lexus ES350. In an internal presentation, the company later said the limited recall saved Toyota $100 million or more. The slide was marked "Wins for Toyota — Safety Group."