WASHINGTON -- A senior Republican lawmaker yesterday asked for an investigation into whether an aide to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood sought to coach an insurer on what to tell congressional investigators about Toyota’s safety defects.
Jill Zuckman, LaHood’s top public affairs official, sent e-mails to State Farm Insurance Cos. last week that may have tried to influence the insurer to provide testimony casting the Transportation Department in the best possible light, Rep. Darrell Issa said.
Issa, R-Calif., the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked the Transportation Department inspector general to determine whether Zuckman “acted outside the bounds of appropriate professional conduct.”
Issa’s request comes at an awkward time for LaHood. The transportation secretary, who has spearheaded efforts both to identify Toyota’s problems and to defend the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s handling of its investigations, is scheduled to testify today before the House panel.
The hearing, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is to be the first in a series of congressional hearings about safety defects in Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles.
Zuckman today referred Automotive News to an e-mail from LaHood that said State Farm had apologized for news accounts that described the insurer as having been the first organization to alert NHTSA to Toyota’s problems.
“After those apologies, my staff was merely confirming that State Farm now agreed that NHTSA was already looking into this issue before it received information from State Farm,” LaHood’s e-mail said.
Zuckman, a former Washington reporter for the Chicago Tribune, declined to comment.
In a Feb. 15 e-mail to State Farm, Zuckman said, “I understand that State Farm will be testifying about the Toyota matter on Capitol Hill and again, I want to be sure I understand what you plan to say and that it’s consistent with the facts,” according to a copy of the e-mail released by Issa.
A State Farm spokesman responded that the company’s general counsel would contact a Transportation lawyer to discuss Zuckman’s request, a copy of his e-mail shows.
In a later e-mail, Zuckman detailed the facts as she understood them, which included the statement that “NHTSA has not received analysis or warnings related to unintended acceleration from State Farm,” according to Issa’s letter.
Issa said committee documents “contradict her version of events.” The documents show State Farm voluntarily sent NHTSA trend data in 2004 and each year afterward that “should have alerted” NHTSA, part of the Transportation Department, to unintended-acceleration complaints about Toyota vehicles, his letter said.
Issa’s letter was first reported last night by the U.S. political news outlet Politico.