As Congress prepares to open hearings on Tuesday into Toyota’s rash of safety problems, government watchdog groups are questioning whether the deep financial and personal connections between lawmakers and the carmaker could taint the inquiries.
Toyota , as both a major employer in the United States and a major lobbying force in Washington, has staked out a position in the capital unlike almost any other foreign corporation, with close ties to a number of the lawmakers who will lead inquiries into the safety defects that have led to the recall of more than eight million vehicles.
Federal disclosure records show that Toyota, with 31 lobbyists in Washington last year, has spent nearly $25 million on federal regulatory and legislative lobbying matters in the last five years, far more than any other foreign automaker. That amount is certain to grow this year, with Toyota in full damage-control mode in the face of myriad federal investigations.
“Toyota has lobbied to a degree that no other foreign automaker has,” said Dave Levinthal, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that has analyzed Toyota’s record in Washington.
“They’ve built up years’ worth of connections with federal lawmakers, and that counts for something, when you know the people who are waiting for you on the other side of that door in a contentious situation,” he said. “Now, does that mean they’re going to get off easily? That remains to be seen.” However, the potential for conflicts of interest was significant, he added.
Toyota’s registered lobbyists include at least eight former officials from Congress and the executive branch. The company also employs former engineers and officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal regulatory agency faulted by some critics for failing to spot a pattern of safety problems at Toyota.
A number of lawmakers have personal financial ties to Toyota as well. More than a dozen members of Congress have owned stock in Toyota since 2008, valued, in some cases, at tens of thousands of dollars. Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat, led the way, with Toyota stock valued at $116,000 to $315,000 in her most recent disclosure report.
Ms. Harman serves on the House energy committee, which will begin a public examination of Toyota’s problems at a hearing on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the House oversight committee will hold a hearing of its own on Toyota. The ranking Republican on the committee, Representative Darrell Issa of California, has pressed Toyota for a fuller accounting of the safety problems, but he too has a history of financial connections to automakers.
Mr. Issa is one of the wealthiest members of Congress with reported assets of as much as $337 million, in his most recent Congressional filing. He made his money in the auto-alarm business, selling the Viper alarm and other brands for Toyotas and many other makes. Although he sold his financial interests in the company he founded a decade ago, he remains on its board.