WASHINGTON — Former regulators hired by Toyota helped end at least four federal investigations of unintended acceleration by company vehicles in the last decade, warding off possible recalls, court and government records show.
Christopher Tinto, vice president of regulatory affairs in Toyota's Washington office, and Christopher Santucci, who works for Tinto, helped persuade the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to end probes including those of 2002-03 Toyota Camrys and Solaras, court documents show. Both men joined Toyota directly from NHTSA, Tinto in 1994 and Santucci in 2003.
While all automakers have employees who handle NHTSA issues, Toyota may be alone among the major companies in employing former agency staffers to do so. Spokesmen for General Motors, Ford Chrysler Group and Honda all say their companies have no ex-NHTSA people who deal with the agency on defects.
Possible links between Toyota and NHTSA may fuel mounting criticism of their handling of defects in Toyota and Lexus models tied to 19 deaths between 2004 and 2009. Three congressional committees have scheduled hearings on the recalls.
"Toyota bamboozled NHTSA or NHTSA was bamboozled by itself," said Joan Claybrook, an auto-safety advocate and former NHTSA administrator in the Carter administration. "I think there is going to be a lot of heat on NHTSA over this."
In one example of the Toyota aides' role, Santucci testified in a Michigan lawsuit that the company and NHTSA discussed limiting an examination of unintended acceleration complaints to incidents lasting less than a second.
"We discussed the scope" of the investigation, Santucci testified. "NHTSA's concerns about the scope ultimately led to a decision by the agency to reduce that scope. You say it worked out well for Toyota, I think it worked out well for both the agency and Toyota."
In an e-mailed response to questions about possible influence of former NHTSA employees on the agency's Toyota decisions, Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said NHTSA "currently has three open investigations involving Toyota and is monitoring two major safety recalls involving Toyota vehicles. NHTSA's record reflects that safety is its singular priority."
On Jan. 21 Toyota recalled 2.3 million U.S. cars and trucks with potentially defective accelerator pedals. That followed Toyota's decision in November to recall 4.48 million vehicles in the United States and Canada because floor mats might trap gas pedals while they were depressed. Combined worldwide recalls for pedals, floor mats and a software fix to adjust brakes on the Prius and other hybrid models rose to more than 8 million vehicles as of Feb. 8.
All four of the probes the Toyota aides helped end were into complaints that the unintended acceleration was caused by flaws in the vehicles' electronic throttle systems. Toyota has denied that the system is a problem. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Feb. 3 that NHTSA is reviewing the electronics.
Toyota spokeswoman Martha Voss declined to make Santucci and Tinto available for comment.
"Anything Mr. Tinto and Mr. Santucci did was in the interest of full disclosure, transparency and openness with regulators and safety experts," Voss said in an e-mailed statement.