WASHINGTON — Efforts to conceal the extent of dangerous car defects at Toyota Motor Corp. were so pervasive, prosecutors say, that an exasperated employee at one point warned that “someone will go to jail if lies are repeatedly told.”
Yet no one has gone to jail, nor is likely to.
The Justice Department last week socked the auto company with a $1.2 billion penalty but brought no criminal charges against individual executives, an unsatisfying resolution for consumer activists.
But prosecutors say they had little choice, in part because of constraints with evidence and the challenge of gathering testimony and information from witnesses outside the United States.
It can be hard to prove that the person whose name is on a damning document was directly responsible for the misstatements, legal experts say.
Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, whose office brought the case, told reporters last week that while he had not foreclosed the possibility of criminal charges against individuals, he expected the settlement to be the end of the matter.
When people who break the law live outside the country, “there are problems of evidence and problems of proof,” Bharara said when asked about the prospect of prosecuting individuals at the company. Evidence and documents that can be brought into play against a corporation, he said, might not be admissible against specific people.
Toyota, which acknowledged hiding information about defects, said in a statement that in the four years since the recalls, it had “made fundamental changes to become a more responsive and customer-focused organization, and we are committed to continued improvements.”
The penalty is the largest of its kind ever brought against an auto company, according to the Justice Department.
Court documents filed in the case accuse Toyota of intentionally withholding from consumers and regulators information about problems that could make some of its cars accelerate out of control. One such problem, involving ill-fitting floor mats, attracted negative attention for the company after a 2009 car crash in San Diego that killed a family of four.