THE INFLUENCE GAME: Toyota's powerful DC friends
FILE (photo) - In this May 9, 1996 file photo, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., left, and then-West Virginia Gov. …
by SHARON THEIMER, Associated Press Writer
Mon Feb 8, 4:30 pm ET
WASHINGTON – The lawmakers now investigating Toyota's recall include a senator who was so eager to lure the Japanese automaker to his state that he tramped along through fields as its executives scouted plant sites, and a congresswoman who owes much of her wealth to a Toyota supplier.
They and others on the congressional 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.
Toyota 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. Will those 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."