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Corruption Chronicles

Seriou$ Conflicts For Legislators Probing Toyota

Lawmakers and U.S. government regulators investigating the massive recall of the world’s largest automaker may have difficulty being objective because they have financial ties to the company, tight friendships with its top executives and precious factories that greatly benefit their home state.

The federal legislators leading the investigation of Toyota’s colossal safety violations include a senator (West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller), who practically jumped through hoops to lure the Japanese automaker to his state and a famously rich congresswoman (California Democrat Jane Harman), who owes much of her wealth to Toyota, according to a news report published this week. Harman also represents the district—Torrance California—of Toyota’s U.S. headquarters in the House and holds tens of thousands of dollars in company stock with her husband.

Rockefeller, Harman and others on the congressional committees probing Toyota represent states where the automaker has factories and the crucial manufacturing jobs they bring to communities. As chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Rockefeller is the Senate’s lead Toyota investigator yet he’s been tight with the company’s founding family for decades and proudly boasts about luring a much-ballyhooed Toyota factory to West Virginia in the 1990s.

Now Rockefeller’s committee will review whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acted aggressively enough toward the automaker. The agency’s new chief, David L. Strickland, is also tight with Rockefeller and worked for eight years on the senator’s committee as a lawyer and senior staffer. The probe involves the recall of nearly 10 million vehicles over acceleration issues and brake problems. 

Harmon is an influential member of the House committee (Energy and Commerce) that’s leading the widespread Toyota probe even though she has a clear conflict of interest in the matter. She and her husband, Sidney, admit owing much of their multimillion-dollar fortune to Toyota and the couple owns a lucrative business that sells vehicle audio and entertainment systems to the automaker. 

Toyota is also well connected with top company officials that include former presidential cabinet members, prominent government officials and influential former federal legislators. Among them is Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Energy and Transportation (Federico Pena), also co-chairman of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Clinton Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and former Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari. 


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