With jobs at risk, state officials warn against Toyota 'witch hunt'

WASHINGTON — Four state governors and members of Congress with Toyota plants in their districts expressed concern Tuesday that the congressional hearings into Toyota's handling of safety issues could turn into a witch hunt, leading to layoffs that could damage what has been an economic pillar in much of the South.

Federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into Toyota's safety troubles, anda more tough questions are expected Wednesday as Toyota President Akio Toyoda testifies.

"Toyota must put the safety of drivers first and foremost," Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said in a statement. "However, they deserve a level and reasonable response from the federal government — one that is not tainted by the federal government's financial interest in some of Toyota's competitors."

The automaker's massive recall has had a huge impact on Kentucky, which is the nation's third largest auto producer. Toyota's largest assembly plant in North America is in Georgetown, Ky.

Just over a third of the 7,000 Toyota workers in Georgetown were affected when one of the plant's assembly lines were idled after the Camry and Avalon models it produces were recalled for "sticky" gas pedals provided by a supplier.

Workers affected by the idling had the option of taking paid vacation or unpaid leave, but the vast majority came to work, with many taking training sessions, cleaning assembly line stations or applying new coats of paint.

Beshear was joined by the governors of Indiana, Mississippi and Alabama in urging congressional investigators to treat the Japanese automaker fairly. All four states have Toyota plants, and the South's economic rebirth was aided in no small part to its hosting a broader network of auto suppliers spread across such towns as Danville and Georgetown, Ky., and throughout Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia.

"Toyota has more than 172,000 company and dealership employees across the United States, not including suppliers, and we have seen the maginitude of the benefits created by their presences," the governors wrote in a letter addressed to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerice, which is conducting the hearing, and three other members of Congress. "Besides the obvious good-paying jobs provided in our states, Toyota demonstrates a commendable postivie spirit not only with its own employees but also within the communities and neighborhoods within which its plants operate."

The four governors also accused the government of an "obvious conflict of interest because of its huge financial interest" in General Motors and said the government's recent "disturbing statements and hasty actions stand in marked contrast their reaction to the astonishing 16.4 million recalls in the auto industry for 2009."

In addition to Beshear, the letter was signed by Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and Bob Riley of Alabama.

At the hearing Tuesday, James Lentz, the president of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., admitted to a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that the Japanese automaker hasn't "lived up to the high standards our customers and the public have come to expect from Toyota.

"We acknowledge these mistakes, we apologize and we have learned from them," Lentz said in his prepared testimony Tuesday. "We now understand that we must think differently when investigating complaints and communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customers and our regulators."

Toyoda will offer his own apology and accept full responsibility for the growing questions about the quality of his company's cars when he testifies Wednesday before the full House Energy and Commerce Committee.

At Tuesday's hearing, members of Congress with Toyota plants in their districts rose to the company's defense.

Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., blasted testimony from Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a research and advocacy firm, who said that instead of concentrating on the source of the problem, Toyota has stonewalled consumers.

Buyer, who has a Subaru plant in his district that produces Toyota Camrys, noted that Kane's research into Toyota's sudden acceleration complaints were funded by five law firms that have cases against the company.

(Lexington Herald Leader reporter Scott Sloan contributed to this report.)

To read the governors letter, see:

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