U.S. Officials Cite Jobs in Defending Toyota Against Onslaught

The 2010 Toyota Prius

The 2010 Toyota Prius  (Foxnews.com)

Enough with the Toyota bashing -- that's what some state officials, worried about the impact the company recalls could have on the United States' fragile economy, are saying in the face of the growing confidence crisis. 

Toyota isn't just a Japanese company. It maintains a huge operation in the United States, with plants in seven states and 1,400 dealerships all across the country employing hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers. 

Governors representing four of the states that house Toyota operations pointed to this employment base in a letter sent Wednesday to congressional lawmakers who are holding hearings over recent recalls by the car company.

The governors slammed what they called "unfortunate and unfair" media coverage and suggested U.S. officials think twice before criticizing the beleaguered automaker. 

"Toyota has become as thoroughly an American company as the so-called 'domestic' manufacturers," they wrote, citing the 172,000 company and dealership employees in the United States and calling Toyota a "valuable friend." 

The governors -- Kentucky's Steven Beshear, Indiana's Mitch Daniels, Mississippi's Haley Barbour and Alabama's Bob Riley -- are going against the grain as other officials line up to criticize Toyota. 

The company announced this week that it is recalling 437,000 Prius and other hybrid cars to fix brake problems, bringing the total number of Toyota vehicles recalled worldwide -- over issues ranging from floor mats which can trap gas pedals to the gas pedals themselves -- to 8.5 million. 

The recalls led U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week to advise in congressional testimony that "anybody" who owns one of the vehicles in question should "stop driving it" and take it to a dealership. Toyota Motor Corp. shares sank after the statement, though LaHood later clarified that vehicle owners should only go to the dealership if they are "in doubt." 

The four governors referenced that remark in their letter, accusing the federal government of having a "conflict of interest" given its stake in General Motors and Chrysler. 

"It is unfortunate and unfair that Toyota has fallen victim to aggressive and questionable news coverage of these issues when the real story is how quickly Toyota identified the problems, found solutions and delivered those solutions to its dealers worldwide," they wrote. "Despite the federal government's obvious conflict of interest because of its huge financial stake in some of Toyota's competitors ... it has spoken out against Toyota, including statements U.S. government officials have later been forced to retract." 

The jobs factor is clearly a motivator in the governors' concern -- they noted in their letter that the company has not yet laid off anybody in the wake of the controversy. In Kentucky, Toyota plants employ more than 8,500 people, according to information provided by the governor's office. The bulk of that base comes from the Camry-producing Georgetown, Ky., plant. 

Two Toyota plants in Indiana that employ 4,500 people announced last month it would not lay off workers despite declines in production. However, that was before the recall went big. In 2007, Toyota announced it was opening a plant outside Tupelo, Miss., that was to employ 2,000 people.

Toyota also has manufacturing plants in West Virginia, Alabama and Texas, and shares a plant with General Motors in California.

The Obama administration may be recalibrating its rhetoric. 

In an interview with Bloomberg, President Obama said this week that while Toyota will be investigated to see if it acted "quickly and decisively" to address the safety problems, he expects the company to recover. 

"Obviously, Toyota has been an extraordinary automaker for a very long time, and I suspect that they will continue to be, despite this recent glitch," he said. 

Toyota has been an enormously popular brand in the United States. During the government's "cash for clunkers" program last year, owners traded in their "clunkers" for Toyotas more than any other brand. 

Toyota got a bit of a public relations boost Wednesday when auto research company Edmunds.com reported that Toyota ranks 17th among automakers in terms of the "number of complaints per vehicle sold." 

A review of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data showed the company accounted for 9.1 percent of complaints from 2001 through Feb. 3, 2010, though it sold 13.5 percent of all new cars in the country. By comparison, Ford accounted for 18.3 percent of complaints, while selling 17.6 percent of all new cars. 

Meanwhile, congressional committees are preparing for hearings to investigate the handling of the recalls by Toyota and the Department of Transportation, and continue to question the Japanese company. 

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., wrote a letter to Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. President James Lentz last week claiming representatives were giving conflicting accounts over the cause behind "unintended acceleration" and when the company first learned about it. 

In the letter, the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said Toyota officials told them in late January that it was unclear whether sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats that were trapping them fully explained the acceleration problem -- though the executive said in subsequent interview that it is "quite clear" those two glitches are behind the problem 

The lawmakers also said Toyota officials told their committee that the company first learned of the problem in the spring of 2009, though the executive pegged claimed in an interview the company learned in late October. 

Waxman, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, told The Los Angeles Times Tuesday that the statements "raise questions and doubts about Toyota's understanding of the risks and the condition."

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said he'd be happy to "facilitate" Toyota CEO Akido Toyoda's appearance on the Hill if he were invited to testify at the hearing scheduled for Feb. 24.

"Given the number of outstanding questions surrounding Toyota's relationship with U.S. regulators and in the best interests of moving forward, I'd like to help facilitate a dialogue between Mr. Toyoda and lawmakers from both parties and both chambers," Issa said in a statement.