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Did Transportation Dept. interfere with Toyota investigation?

By Ed O'Keefe

The ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee alleges that top officials at the Department of Transportation attempted to influence the testimony of State Farm Insurance regarding the ongoing Toyota safety investigations.

But the department says it's a big misunderstanding driven in part by inaccurate news reports about what the insurance company has told federal safety officials about Toyota safety concerns.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Monday evening asked the department's inspector general to determine whether Jill Zuckman improperly sought information from the insurance company about what it planned to tell lawmakers this week. Zuckman leads the department's public affairs office and previously worked as a Chicago Tribune political reporter.

State Farm reportedly alerted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about a rise in reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyotas. The company also voluntarily sent the agency similar information in 2004, according to congressional investigators. The revelations come as lawmakers focus on whether the government reacted properly to such reports.

But the company disputes those reports and agrees that NHTSA was aware of the safety concerns long before 2004, according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

“State Farm apologized to me and my staff about media stories that portrayed State Farm as having been the first to alert NHTSA to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles," LaHood said in a statement. "After those apologies, my staff was merely confirming that State Farm now agreed that NHTSA was already looking into this issue before it received information from State Farm.” (He provided further clarification on his blog.)

Following the apology, Zuckman sent an e-mail to State Farm senior director for external affairs Phil Supple on Feb. 15.

"I understand that State Farm will be testifying about the Toyota matter on Capitol Hill, and again, I want to be sure I understand what you plan to say about NHTSA and that it's consistent with the facts," Zuckman wrote.

Supple replied later that day that he would arrange a call with "those closest to this hearing preparation."

Issa wants the department's watchdog to investigate whether Zuckman and others "may have influence [sic] a third party's communications with Congress during an active investigation," he said in his letter.

Despite his concerns, aides said Issa is unlikely to raise the issue during the oversight panel's Toyota hearing on Wednesday. Lawmakers of both parties are expected to grill Toyota and federal safety officials about what they knew about the safety concerns and what is being done to address the problem, according to Democratic and Republican aides.

By Ed O'Keefe  | February 23, 2010; 1:09 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Oversight  
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Comments

Just have Obama nationalize Toyota.

Posted by: member5 | February 23, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Congress is the one who has interfered here, the agencies should be taking care of this, not Congress. That's why they are here. Congress butts their stupid noses into everything, except what they should be doing.

Posted by: citigreg | February 23, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

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