Transportation chief Ray LaHood to meet with Toyota President Akio Toyoda in Japan

Signaling renewed vigor in the federal government’s scrutiny of Toyota Motor Corp., Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is heading to Japan to meet with company President Akio Toyoda.

LaHood said the department was examining 500,000 internal documents recently turned over by the automaker in hopes of determining when it began to withhold crucial information about defects in its vehicles. The government has already fined Toyota a record $16.4 million for failing to disclose safety problems related to sudden acceleration.

The volume of paperwork is much greater than originally anticipated, and the analysis could take months, LaHood said. So far, he said, the evidence suggests that Toyota ignored safety warnings from its U.S. engineers.

“Toyota was turning a blind eye or a deaf ear to their own people in North America,” the secretary told The Times in his first interview on Toyota’s handling of the sudden-acceleration crisis. “We really have to determine how long it has occurred, and we won’t know that until we complete our analysis.”

LaHood made his comments on the eve of his trip to Japan and his meeting Monday with Toyoda, where he plans to deliver a stern message that the U.S. will not tolerate violations of safety laws that jeopardize the public.

“They have to understand that safety is our No. 1 priority, always has been, always will be,” LaHood said. “We want to be sure they will do things the right way. And we may have to come back to them after reviewing documents and speak to them about what has taken place in the past.”

Toyota officials did not return calls seeking comment on the company’s expectations for the meeting.

Former regulators and auto safety experts said they could not recall such a high-level meeting between a U.S. Cabinet secretary and a Japanese manufacturer over safety concerns, an indication that LaHood is also working to show critics that the department is not soft on automakers.

“It is very unusual for a department secretary to meet with a chief executive during a defect investigation,” said Joan Claybrook, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the Transportation Department.

She added that she would have demanded Toyoda come to her office in Washington rather than fly to Toyota City.

Since late September, Toyota has issued nearly 11 million recall notices for vehicles worldwide and has come under a wide range of legal, political and regulatory investigations.

NHTSA is conducting multiple investigations into whether Toyota violated U.S. safety rules and may issue additional fines, the agency has said.

LaHood said it was not clear when Toyota began a practice of withholding information about problems in its vehicles, though at least one formal violation of those rules triggered the $16.4-million fine, for delaying a recall for nearly four months of vehicles with gas pedals that could stick. Toyota agreed to pay the fine without challenging it last month.

NHTSA’s handling of Toyota’s safety problems has also come under scrutiny. Despite thousands of complaints and allegations of several dozen deaths caused by sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, the agency closed multiple investigations of Toyota in the last eight years without finding defects.

Critics have pointed to that record as evidence that NHTSA has been lax in enforcing safety rules and is underfunded and understaffed when it comes to regulating an industry that measures its revenue in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

A document released by Congress in February showed that Toyota executives in Washington bragged that they had been able to limit the scope of a recall, saving the company more than $100 million.

LaHood said he asked the Transportation Department inspector general to review the agency’s handling of the matter.

“From everything I know, our people did the very best they could, acted professionally and did it in as quick a manner as possible,” LaHood said. “But the inspector general will get into all of those areas and make a judgment call on it.”

NHTSA became increasingly concerned about Toyota’s responses to safety issues late last year, when acting Administrator Ron Medford went to Japan to deliver the warning to the company that it was not moving quickly enough to address growing problems.

By late January, Toyota had acknowledged that sudden-acceleration problems were not caused exclusively by jammed floor mats, the single issue that the company had identified until that point. It announced that gas pedals in a variety of its models could stick and cause a loss of control, and five days later it ordered a halt of sales and production of eight key models in North America.

But the company’s handling of the matter still raised concerns, LaHood said. A lack of candor became “very clear” from testimony by Toyota executives in Congress in the winter and in NTHSA’s dealings with the company late last year.

LaHood specifically pointed to testimony by Toyota Senior Vice President James Lentz, president of Toyota’s U.S. sales arm. Lentz contradicted statements that Toyota executives had provided to congressional aides only days before.

Toyota appointed two panels in late April to improve communications within the company and with federal safety regulators: a North American Quality Task Force and a North American Quality Advisory Panel, which is headed by former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater. He is scheduled also to meet with Toyota executives Monday.