Just as Toyota was engaged in tense negotiations with federal officials over problems with sudden acceleration, the automaker's North American subsidiary donated more than $75,000 to two major political committees.
The U.S. subsidiary of the Japanese automaker donated $50,400 to the Democratic Governors Association in November and December of last year. The company gave $25,000 to the Republican Governors Association in November, having already sent a check for $25,000 in April.
Toyota is not allowed to donate directly to federal office holders or candidates. But these contributions were legal. Corporations -- even the U.S. subsidiaries of those with foreign owners -- are permitted to donate to the major gubernatorial fundraising committees, and no limits have been placed on how much they can give.
Still, these donations appear to have been unusual. Toyota does not have a large public footprint when it comes to political giving. There is no report of the company making a similar donation to the governors associations during the prior three years. And the automaker does not have a registered political action committee under its company banner, though foreign-owned corporations can establish and contribute to PACs as long as the PACs are overseen by an American citizen or green-card holder.
Most political contributions bearing the corporate name have come from U.S. dealerships. For instance, Wilfred Templeton Fort Myers Toyota in Florida gave the RGA $20,000 last year. And a PAC formed by Gulf States Toyota, a regional association of 150 dealers, handed out $1,000 donations to eight Republicans and four Democrats from Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma.
The automaker does, however, spend prolifically on lobbying. Last year, Toyota spent more than $5 million on its lobbying efforts, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Eight major lobbying firms identify Toyota as a client.
And as the company's difficulties have become more complex, its Washington team appears to be growing. Earlier this month, Toyota hired the DC public affairs firm The Glover Park Group. The Washington-based firm includes principals Joe Lockhart, a White House spokesman under President Bill Clinton, and Joel Johnson, a former Clinton senior adviser, as well as Kevin Madden, a communications specialist for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
Toyota did not respond to a request for comment by press time.