Toyota’s $1.2 billion fine a warning for GM

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The connection was hard to miss.

While Attorney General Eric Holder was announcing a record $1.2 billion penalty on Toyota for misleading the public and regulators about issues involving unintended acceleration in its vehicles, questions were raised about another automaker potentially in the cross hairs of the Justice Department: General Motors.

Although Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, wouldn't comment on the GM investigation, he did issue a clear warning to all automakers about avoiding the same mistakes made by Toyota.

"In a misguided and ill-advised effort at crisis management, Toyota made the fateful decision to mislead the public to protect its brand," Bharara said. "Rather than come clean, the company covered up and misled again and again and again."

(Read more: This opens Pandora's Box for GM: Nardelli)

Will we be hearing similar comments about General Motors for the way it's handled the ignition switch recall five years from now?

There's no way of knowing.

Still, what we know so far about the ignition switch recall—which has been blamed for 31 accidents and 12 deaths, and dates to 2004—raises the same type of questions we heard about Toyota in 2009.

If there was a pattern of complaints and accidents over the course of years, why didn't the company issue a recall sooner?

Was General Motors being straight with the public all along?

Daniel Howes, business columnist and associate business editor for The Detroit News, said the similarities between GM and Toyota are noteworthy.

"What happened with Toyota speaks to the attitude of government regulators and lawmakers when they're looking into corporations who appear to have dropped the ball," he said.

Still, he acknowledged the GM recall situation is different than what Toyota went through, because of clamoring from the public and lawmakers for an explanation of what happened.

"It's only going to get more intense," he said.

(Read more: GM CEO on recall: 'Clearly this took too long')

GM CEO Mary Barra said she has yet to talk with the U.S. Attorney's office, but she wants the same questions answered. She's hired former U.S. Attorney Tony Valukas to conduct an internal review of the company.

GM cheap, will up dividend: Pro
GM cheap, will up dividend: Pro

"There are no sacred cows," Barra said. "He is going to do his investigation and we will let the facts and results of his investigation drive us."

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is saying little about GM.

"I would not confirm [nor] deny the existence of any investigation, but what I would indicate is that the announcement that we are making today is reflective of the aggressive nature that we will take in looking at these kinds of charges, and also the way in which we will resolve them," Holder said.

"I think this is a sign for the industry that we take these matters seriously. Individuals and corporations will be held accountable and the great work that has been done by this team can be replicated if that is necessary."

Toyota's actions 'shameful'

Five years ago, when Toyota was in the midst of the recall crisis surrounding vehicles that may have unintentionally accelerated due to sticky gas pedals, the company reassured the public everything was OK with millions of Toyota models. In reality, the automaker wasn't telling the truth.

Holder called Toyota's handling of the unintended acceleration crisis "shameful."

"By the company's own admissions it protected its brand ahead of its own customers. This constitutes a clear and reprehensible abuse of the public trust," he said.

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As a result, Toyota will now pay the largest ever penalty for an automaker, be put on probation for three years and have an independent monitor ensure the company is abiding by the law when alerting the public about potential safety issues.

In exchange for complying with those stipulations, the Justice Department has agreed not to file criminal charges against the automaker.

In a statement, the company said: "Toyota has cooperated with the U.S. Attorney's office in this matter for more than four years. During that time, we have made fundamental changes to become a more responsive and customer-focused organization, and we are committed to continued improvements."

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

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