U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder used the only word that fit Wednesday for Toyota's behavior in lying about accelerator problems in its cars, covering up the problem and delaying recalls that would have made customers safer: Shameful.
Toyota built its international reputation on the durability and reliability of its automobiles, produced on lines where every worker is empowered to halt production to fix a problem.
But at the highest levels no one stopped the coverup. Things weren't fixed, they were buried, managed, as Holder said, like a public-relations issue not a safety problem.
That's resulted in an agreement with the Justice Department that includes a $1.2 billion fine. Tragically, it also led to the death and injury of some people who relied on Toyota's cars.
Toyota's almost unstoppable march to the top of the auto industry faltered when accelerator problems first became news in 2009 but it has since regained market share and quality ratings.
Christopher Reynolds, chief legal officer for Toyota Motor North America, said the company has learned its lesson.
In a statement released yesterday he said, "we have gone back to basics at Toyota to put our customers first. We have made fundamental changes across our global operations to become a more responsive company."
While nothing will restore those lost to their communities, the Justice Department's involvement will go a long way toward making automobiles safer in the future.
Typically, enforcement falls to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has only civil authority and can impose much less severe financial punishment.
In this case, the NHTSA could probably have fined Toyota about $60 million. A large sum, to be sure, but pale in comparison to the $19 billion profit projected for Toyota this year.
The Justice Department's decision to pursue Toyota with its criminal authority raised the stakes for all automakers, insuring more vigilance within the industry in the future.
Holder made it clear that Justice won't stop at Toyota. Although he declined to comment, it's generally acknowledged that the department is vigorously pursuing General Motors for years of delays in recalling a faulty ignition switch.
Ultimately, some 1.62 million cars worldwide have been recalled for the problem which is blamed for at least 12 deaths in 31 crashes.
Detroit News auto reporter David Shepherdson noted in a PBS interview that with Justice's criminal clout, "the sky is the limit, if they determine they broke the law." As a result, he said, "absolutely every auto company has got to be very nervous,"
Good. That's as it should be.
Auto companies spend untold millions encouraging people to buy and drive their cars. It's they, not consumers, who should be very nervous when those cars aren't safe.