WASHINGTON -- In the days leading up to its massive recall in January, Toyota executives debated when they should inform the public about safety problems with accelerator pedals, prompting one executive to urge the company to "come clean," according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Irv Miller, Toyota's then-group vice president for environment and public affairs, warned his colleagues in an e-mail on Jan. 16, 2010: "We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet. The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean."
Five days later, Toyota announced it would recall 2.3 million vehicles to address sticking pedals on popular vehicles such as the Camry and Corolla.
As Toyota deals with a spate of recalls, the e-mail reveals serious concerns within the Japanese company's public relations leadership that it wasn't dealing with the safety problems squarely and could be inflicting damage to its long-standing reputation for safety and quality. Months earlier, in September 2009, the automaker had announced a recall of more than 4 million vehicles to replace gas pedals that could get stuck in floor mats and cause sudden acceleration.
Toyota has recalled more than 6 million vehicles in the U.S. and a total of more than 8 million worldwide because of acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius hybrid.
"We better just hope that they can get NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to work with us in coming (up) with a workable solution that does not put us out of business," Miller wrote in the Jan. 16 e-mail. He noted that Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, and Yoshi Inaba, president of Toyota Motor North America, were traveling to Washington to meet with federal regulators.
In a memo earlier that day, Katsuhiko Koganei, executive coordinator for corporate communications at Toyota Motor Sales USA, suggested the company should not discuss mechanical failures in accelerator pedals.
In an e-mail to Mike Michels, vice president of external communications, which was copied to other Toyota officials, Koganei wrote, "Now I talked with you on the phone, we should not mention about the mechanical failures of acc. pedal because we have not clarified the real cause of the sticking acc pedal formally, and the remedy for the matter has not been confirmed."
Koganei added that Toyota executives were concerned that news of the mechanical failures "might raise another uneasiness of customers."
Koganei's e-mail prompted a strongly worded response from Miller. "Kogi, I hate to break this to you but WE HAVE A tendency for MECHANICAL failure in accelerator pedals of a certain manufacturer on certain models," Miller wrote, adding his concerns about customer safety. The e-mail's subject line said it was about a draft statement to respond to an ABC News story.
The documents obtained by the AP were among 70,000 pages of papers turned over to government investigators.
Toyota, in a statement, said it "does not comment on internal company communications" and declined comment on Miller's e-mail. But the automaker said, "we have publicly acknowledged on several occasions that the company did a poor job of communicating during the period preceding our recent recalls."
"We have subsequently taken a number of important steps to improve our communications with regulators and customers on safety-related matters to ensure that this does not happen again," Toyota said, adding that it appointed a chief quality officer for North America.
"As part of our heightened commitment to quality assurance, we are fully committed to being more transparent," the company said.
Miller, reached by phone at his home in Los Angeles, said he had no comment. His retirement was announced by Toyota on Dec. 16 and his retirement was effective Feb. 1.
The Transportation Department has assessed a record $16.4 million fine on Toyota for failing to alert the U.S. government to the safety problems about the sticking accelerator pedals quickly enough. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday that Toyota made a "huge mistake" by not disclosing the safety problems sooner.
Concerns about sticking gas pedals and complaints from Toyota owners in the U.S. were rising at the end of 2009, according to documents obtained by the AP. The documents show that on Sept. 29, Toyota's European division issued technical information "identifying a production improvement and repair procedure to address complaints by customers in those countries of sticking accelerator pedals, sudden rpm increase and/or sudden vehicle acceleration."
Distributors throughout Europe and in Russia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Israel received the technical information.
In mid-January, Toyota held internal meetings "to discuss status of production changes and to prepare for meetings with NHTSA" on Jan. 19, according to the timeline. Two days later, Toyota announced it would recall 2.3 million vehicles to address the sticking pedals.
The Japanese automaker was still weighing its options Wednesday about whether to accept or contest the fine. It has also been named in 138 potential class-action lawsuits over falling vehicle values and nearly 100 personal injury and wrongful death cases in federal courts.