Obama's NHTSA Appointee Defends Bush-era NHTSA's Performance on Runaway Toyotas

LaHood and Strickland were also closely questioned about the roles of two former NHTSA safety investigators who went to work for Toyota's Washington, D.C. office, Chris Tinto and Chris Santucci. The two were able to successfully negotiate with their former NHTSA colleagues to sharply narrow the scope of a 2004 investigation into random acceleration in Toyota vehicles. "It smells bad, it's not right," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D.-Calif.

LaHood said an investigation into the matter showed that the former NHTSA officials did not violate ethics rules because they did not negotiate on issues they were involved with while at the agency.

"It does not appear that they were engaged in activities that they were prohibited by law from engaging in," said LaHood. Strickland added that he planned to run NHTSA with the "highest level of ethics possible." Strickland said, "I don't want anyone roaming my halls at NHTSA other than my employees or a designated appointment where they provide us with information that we need."

An ABC News investigation found that federal safety investigators agreed to exclude reports of the most serious cases of alleged "runaway Toyotas" after the intervention of Tinto and Santucci, who were hired to be Washington, D.C. representatives of Toyota.

As a result, an investigation of Toyota's computer-controlled throttle never examined any case in which sudden acceleration lasted longer than a second or two, or in which the driver tried to brake, effectively ruling out all high-speed episodes.

"Longer duration incidents involving uncontrollable acceleration" were deemed to be "not within the scope of this investigation," according to a 2004 memorandum in NHTSA's files.

The memorandum was written on March 23, 2004, shortly after NHTSA official Scott Yon met with Tinto and Santucci, , according to Santucci's testimony in a civil lawsuit.

"We discussed the scope," Santucci testified. "I think it worked out well for both the agency and Toyota."

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