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Toyota counts Rockefeller, McConnell among powerful friends in Washington

Feb. 09, 2010 @ 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Toyota has friends in high places in Washington, including some of the very people now investigating the Japanese automaker.

The company has sought to sow good will and win allies with lobbying, charitable giving, racing in the American-as-apple pie NASCAR series and, perhaps most important, creating jobs.

Lawmakers on the committees investigating Toyota's massive recall represent states where Toyota has factories and the coveted well-paying manufacturing jobs they bring. Some members of Congress have been such cheerleaders for Toyota that the public may wonder how they can act objectively as government watchdogs for auto safety and oversight. The company's executives include a former employee of the federal agency that is supposed to oversee the automaker.

Will Toyota's connections pay off as it tries to minimize fallout from its problems?

The Senate's lead Toyota investigator, West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, credits himself with lobbying Toyota to build a factory in his state. A member of a House investigating panel, California Rep. Jane Harman, represents the district of Toyota's U.S. headquarters and has financial ties to the company.

Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has known Toyota's founding family since the 1960s. He was so closely involved with Toyota's selection of Buffalo, W.Va., for a factory that he slogged through cornfields with Toyota executives scouting locations and still mentions his role in the 1990s deal to this day.

"By the time Toyota decided to make Buffalo its new home," Rockefeller said in 2006 during the plant's 10th anniversary, "I felt like a full-fledged member of that site selection team."

Rockefeller's committee is expected to review whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acted aggressively enough toward Toyota. The agency's new chief, David L. Strickland, worked for eight years on Rockefeller's committee as a lawyer and senior staffer.

Strickland has such close relationships with Rockefeller and other senators that Republican Sen. George LeMieux of Florida asked Strickland at his confirmation hearing two months ago whether he could disagree with Rockefeller, his former boss: "The oversight for you in your role will be from the committee that you once served on," LeMieux told him.

"I will be honest with you, sir," Strickland answered. "I've had disagreements with the chairman personally. But he signs the paycheck, and he wins. But I will have no problem with that all, sir."

Rockefeller sees no reason to step aside from his committee's investigation. Consumer protection is a cornerstone of his work as chairman and that is reflected in the steps he and the committee are taking, including NHTSA briefings and plans to hold hearings and seek recall-related documents, Rockefeller spokeswoman Jamie Smith said.

"While this important work proceeds, Senator Rockefeller is encouraged that Toyota is making every effort to minimize the impact on its U.S. work force, especially during these difficult economic times," Smith said. "He hopes and expects that Toyota will remain a strong company and is capable of getting back on the right track with safety and consumer confidence."

Toyota's U.S. operations are based in Torrance, Calif., in Harman's district. She serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating Toyota's recall.

Harman and her husband, Sidney, held at least $115,000 in Toyota stock as of her most recent financial disclosure report. The company to which the couple owes much of their multimillion-dollar fortune, Harman International Industries, founded by Sidney Harman, sells vehicle audio and entertainment systems to Toyota. The two companies teamed up on a charitable education project in 2003, when Sidney Harman was Harman International's executive chairman. He retired from the Harman board in December 2008.

Several other lawmakers on investigating committees also represent states with Toyota factories, including Missouri, Texas, Mississippi, Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky. Toyota says it employs nearly 36,000 people in the U.S. and indirectly employs about 166,000 people at dealerships and suppliers.

Republicans also have spoken of Toyota's importance to their states. "Kentucky is still reaping the rewards of its 20-year partnership with Toyota, and we hope to continue to do so for years to come," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in marking the 2006 anniversary of a Toyota plant there.

Still, Toyota has a long way to go to win the wholesale affection of Congress. Democrats criticize it for nonunion shops. Some lawmakers suggest it benefits from unfair Japanese trade policies at the expense of automakers they consider American, such as Ford and General Motors.

Toyota has tried hard to be thought of as an American brand. Its efforts include trying to become part of the nation's car culture.

Its U.S. charity doles out millions each year, sometimes in photo opportunities with politicians. It gave $5.6 million to charitable causes from mid-2007 to mid-2008, much of it focused on education and the environment, according to its most recent report.

"Words cannot express the generosity that Toyota has shown Kentucky through industry job opportunities and community service," Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., said in a 2006 Senate speech.

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