Toyota heads to Capitol Hill with team of lobbyists, history of political giving

Sen. Jay Rockefeller chairs a committee investigating Toyota, which held a gala in his honor.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller chairs a committee investigating Toyota, which held a gala in his honor. (Harry Hamburg - AP)
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By Kimberly Kindy, Peter Whoriskey and Madonna Lebling
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010

As Toyota braces this week for its first round of congressional hearings, the automaker and its affiliates have assembled a formidable lobbying force to build support on Capitol Hill and leverage longstanding relationships with key lawmakers.

With company officials still reeling from recalls of their most popular models, the firm has hired crisis-management experts from Quinn Gillespie & Associates, a bipartisan lobbying firm, and from Glover Park Group, a Democratic public affairs and lobbying operation. The teams join a force of 32 lobbyists already working Capitol Hill on behalf of Toyota and the Toyota dealerships' political action committee, Gulf States Toyota.

Toyota already has an advantage built over a decade of targeted political giving. More than 40 percent of the 125 members of Congress serving on the three committees investigating Toyota have received campaign donations over the past 10 years, a total of $135,673 from the Toyota dealers' PAC, from dealership owners and employees, and from staff at Toyota's U.S. operation, a Washington Post analysis shows. Members of Congress received an additional $1 million for their campaigns through giving to state parties and PACs.

Toyota Motor North America also has backed charities and other nonprofit groups with strong ties to members of Congress, giving $1 million in 2008 and 2009. Some of that money financed events honoring or entertaining the members.

Toyota defended its charitable giving and spending on Capitol Hill, particularly in recent weeks as the company has dealt with a flood of requests for information from members of Congress, owners of Toyota vehicles and the media. Toyota has recently recalled millions of vehicles around the world, most notably for problems that can cause sudden uncontrolled acceleration.

"The truth is we've increased our communications capacity to boost our ability to respond to the avalanche of inquiries we've received," said Toyota spokesman Ed Lewis. "It's realistic to assume that to help us educate all those important audiences, we would need expert counsel and extra arms and legs."

Other auto companies -- both domestic and foreign -- also have employees and PACs that direct large sums of money to political campaigns and lobbying. General Motors nearly doubled its annual lobbying budget of $7.5 million as it sought a government bailout in 2007 and 2008. Its employees and dealerships have given campaigns more than $1 million over the past decade.

Members of Congress with some of the deepest financial ties to Toyota include some with important roles in the ongoing investigation. These members' districts also have the greatest number of jobs tied to the automaker.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which will hold an investigative hearing on March 3, was honored at a dinner gala and awards ceremony in 2008 financed with $45,000 in lobbying funds from Toyota Motor North America. The division's president, Shigeru Hayakawa, extended the invitation himself, and a news release from Rockefeller's office the following day said the auto executive was someone Rockefeller "is proud to call a friend."

Toyota lobbyists from the company's North American subsidiary also gave $5,000 last year to a foundation that Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) created in 1988, which financed trade missions led by the senator that brought a large Toyota plant to his home state. The Buffalo plant is one of the fastest-growing Toyota operations in the nation, with 1,173 employees.

The state with the biggest stake in Toyota, however, is California, where a third of the company's 35,838 U.S. employees work. Based in Torrance, Toyota has had close ties to Rep. Jane Harman (D), who represents its district. Harman is the only member on a committee investigating Toyota who owned stock in the company in 2008, the most recent year for which members have filed financial disclosure statements. Both she and her husband, Sidney Harman, have holdings between $116,002 and $315,000, a marked rise from the prior year's amounts, between $1,000 and $15,000. Harman International Industries, her husband's company, has for years held lucrative contracts with Toyota, equipping cars with Harman Kardon audio systems.

Neither Harman nor Rockefeller nor any other member on the investigating committees have said they will recuse themselves from the hearings. Congressional ethics laws and rules do not require that members remove themselves from activities that involve their financial interests.

Rockefeller spokeswoman Jamie Smith said the committee's investigative unit, which the senator created last year, is asking for documents and information from both Toyota and the federal agency responsible for oversight of the auto industry, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Anyone who has followed Senator Rockefeller's long career in West Virginia knows well that he fights hard for good-paying manufacturing jobs but never shirks from holding those same companies' feet to the fire when it comes to safety and consumer protection," Smith said. "Any suggestion otherwise is just plain wrong."

Harman's office declined to comment.

In addition to its expensive Washington lobbying effort, which last year alone topped $5 million, Toyota has deployed auto dealers and plant employees as grass-roots lobbyists in response to the recalls. Dealers and workers -- which collectively represent more than 170,000 Toyota employees and franchise owners -- are calling and visiting congressional district offices.

"My message to members is that they should be very careful with the comments they make in these public hearings. Don't overreach; don't rush to judgment," said John McEleney, who owns a dealership in Clinton, Iowa, and is the most recent past chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association. "I think people should be very confident driving these cars."

State governors groups also have received funding from Toyota Motor North America in recent months. The Democratic Governors Association received $50,400 in November and December, and the Republican Governors Association received $25,000 in November.

Governors from the four states that host Toyota plants or have other company interests have provided the highest-profile support so far. In a strongly worded letter last week to House investigators, the quartet chastised federal officials who had "spoken out against Toyota" and raised questions about whether the federal government can fairly judge allegations against the company.

The government has an "obvious conflict of interest because of its huge financial stake in some of Toyota's competitors," the letter read. The United States owns a majority stake in General Motors after bailing out the company last year; it also owns a smaller portion of Chrysler. The letter originated with Kentucky Gov. Steven L. Beshear, his office said, and was signed by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley.

Toyota did not ask Beshear to write the letter, Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said. Despite the conflict of interest cited in the letter, she said the governor "is not advocating an alternative process. He is just asking for the government to pursue its normal process in a fair manner."

Database editor Dan Keating and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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