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Justice Dept. Examines Probe; Could Take Firestone to Court

By Caroline E. Mayer

and Cindy Skrzycki

Pressed by members of Congress, the Justice Department is conferring with federal safety regulators to see whether there are grounds for launching a civil or criminal investigation into the way Bridgestone/ Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. have handled the recall of 6.5 million tires.

However, officials at both Justice and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said mounting a criminal case would be unlikely because of the difficulty in proving that either company or its executives deliberately concealed information about a safety defect from government officials.

Attorney General Janet Reno said in her weekly news conference Thursday that in response to a letter from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., her agency is “reviewing everything to see what would be appropriate, and that would include civil or criminal” laws.

Sue Bailey, the new NHTSA administrator, said in an interview Thursday, “We’re having conversations with Justice and we defer to them as we look at any possible penalties.” However, she added, “we’re a long way from that.”

Government officials say that only one NHTSA case has ever been referred to Justice for possible criminal prosecution. That 1992 case recommended action against Toyota for allegedly making false statements to the agency in a case involving a fuel tank defect. The safety agency ended up settling with the carmaker.

Bailey said that in light of the issues that have been raised by the recall, the agency is considering whether to seek a dramatic increase in the maximum civil penalties companies must pay when they withhold vital information or fail to promptly notify the government about safety defects.

Currently, the maximum civil penalty is $925,000. Ford, was fined $425,000 a few years ago for failing to disclose a defect involving an ignition switch. NHTSA asked Congress to increase the penalty to $4 million, a request that is pending.