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Toyota disputes allegations that it withheld evidence

It tells Congress it has gone to great lengths to share information, but acknowledges the existence of the Books of Knowledge, or troves of technical information about its vehicles.

March 13, 2010|By Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian
  • Former Toyota attorney Dmitrios Biller said the automaker refused to give key data to plaintiffs' lawyers.
Former Toyota attorney Dmitrios Biller said the automaker refused to give… (Stefano Paltera / For The…)

Toyota Motor Corp. on Friday contested allegations that it withheld evidence in lawsuits, telling Congress that it has maintained "the highest professional and ethical standards in its legal and regulatory practices."

In a letter to Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Toyota countered claims by a former company lawyer who said it had refused to provide key information to plaintiffs' attorneys over a period of years.

Last month, the committee subpoenaed some 6,000 documents from the former Toyota attorney, Dimitrios Biller, as part of its investigation into the automaker's handling of safety recalls and sudden acceleration problems.

Although the documents largely deal with issues unrelated to unintended acceleration, they have taken on new relevance as Congress and federal regulators investigate whether Toyota moved to downplay the significance of the safety issue and to delay or mitigate recalls.

On Feb. 26, Towns sent Toyota a letter addressing the contents of some of that material, raising concerns that Toyota "deliberately withheld" information from lawyers and regulators, including hiding the existence of so-called Books of Knowledge, or troves of technical information about its vehicles.

In an eight-page response prepared by outside attorney Theodore Hester of the law firm King & Spalding, the automaker rebutted those allegations, saying it has gone to great lengths to share information.

The response also attacked Biller, who handled product liability cases for Toyota between 2003 and 2007, calling him "a disgruntled former employee" and noting that he is currently in litigation with Toyota and several other parties.

The automaker, however, did acknowledge the existence of the Books of Knowledge, calling them "highly proprietary and commercially sensitive." It said it never disclosed them to attorneys or regulators in the past because it was never specifically asked to do so.

Jenny Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for the congressional panel, said Towns' staff was reviewing the letter and would respond to Toyota soon.

Last month, the committee held a hearing in which Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, apologized for the way the company had dealt with the recalls. At the same hearing, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Toyota had been "safety deaf."

Biller said he did not believe that Toyota's letter fully addressed his concerns, saying it was "filled with misleading statements." A lawsuit he filed against Toyota last year in California is currently in arbitration.

Meanwhile, the fate of the 6,000 documents remains uncertain. Toyota has succeeded in keeping them sealed by court order, but Congress briefly released four of the documents last month.

ken.bensinger@ latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian@ latimes.com

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