Federal safety investigators agreed to exclude reports of the most serious cases of alleged "runaway Toyotas" after the intervention of a former safety official hired to be a Washington, D.C. representative of Toyota, an ABC News investigation has found.
As a result, the federal investigation of Toyota's computer-controlled throttle in 2004 never examined any case in which the sudden acceleration lasted longer than a second or two, or in which the driver tried to brake, effectively ruling out all high-speed episodes.
There have been five similar investigations since 2004, and the same limitation applied to the most recent probe in 2007, involving complaints of electronic issues and uncontrolled acceleration in the Lexus model.
"It's beyond explanation," said Edgar Heiskell, a lawyer suing Toyota over a fatal crash of a Camry in Detroit which allegedly raced out of control. "I have not seen an explanation that makes sense," he said.
Toyota officials have repeatedly referred to the federal investigations as confirmation there is no electronic or computer defect causing some of their cars to race out of control.
But internal government memos and court testimony analyzed by ABC News show the federal investigations were extremely limited in scope, after negotiations involving former safety investigators who had been recruited to work for Toyota's Washington, D.C. office.
"Longer duration incidents involving uncontrollable acceleration" were deemed to be "not within the scope of this investigation," according to a 2004 memorandum in the files of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The memorandum was written on March 23, 2004, shortly after the NHTSA official, Scott Yon, met with two former NHTSA colleagues who worked for Toyota, including Chris Santucci, who had left the agency only six months earlier, according to his testimony in a civil lawsuit.
"We discussed the scope," Santucci testified. "I think it worked out well for both the agency and Toyota."
Twenty-six of the 37 initial complaints of runaway Toyotas were excluded from the federal investigation in 2004 following the negotiations between the safety agency and the Toyota representatives.
The 26 excluded incidents included 25 cases in which accidents or crashes were reported. They were never investigated.
The investigation, involving Camry, Lexus and other models, was closed after four months, "without identifying a defect trend."
"By keeping that narrow focus, NHTSA almost ensured they wouldn't have enough complaint data to take action," said Sean Kane, of Safety Research & Strategies, a private auto research firm.
A Toyota spokesman said the company "respectfully declined to comment."
Under federal law, an employee in the executive branch is barred for two years after leaving government service from representing any matter under the employee's previous official responsibility.
It is not known whether the restriction applies to a federal safety investigator.
A Toyota spokesperson said Santucci was not available to answer questions.
In addition to excluding longer duration sudden acceleration episodes, the safety agency also ruled out any case in which the brake pedal had been applied.
A document submitted by Toyota to the safety agency confirmed it would not submit any reports "in which the customer alleged that they could not control a vehicle by applying the brake."
"Of course, our client who went from a very low speed to almost 80 miles an hour would have lasted more than one or two seconds and there's strong evidence she was trying to apply the brakes," said Heiskell. "So by the NHTSA Toyota standard of what was to be submitted, that would not have even been considered."
There was no immediate comment from the safety agency. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has praised NHTSA for its efforts to hold "Toyota's feet to the fire."
Editor's Note: On March 2, 2010, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood testified that his department had investigated the actions of Santucci and another former NHTSA investigator hired by Toyota and determined that they did not violate federal conflicts law. The law prohibits former executive branch employees from representing a matter under the employee's previous official responsibility for two years after leaving government service. Secretary LaHood told Congress: "Everything that we can tell at this point is that they did work for Toyota and they did talk to people at DOT, but not in an area where they were responsible. … I'm saying that our review of it, it does not appear that they were engaged in activities that they were prohibited by law from engaging in." (Read more about Secretary LaHood's statements to Congress here and here.) Mr. Santucci has testified in court litigation that he worked on two Toyota matters during his employment at NHTSA, but neither involved sudden acceleration.