- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

The Justice Department is considering a probe of Bridgestone Corp.'s recall of Firestone tires on Ford Motor Co. vehicles, Attorney General Janet Reno said yesterday.

Miss Reno told reporters during her weekly press briefing the department had received a request from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to look into the matter and that a review had begun. No decisions have been made on how to proceed.

"We're reviewing that request to see what, if any, federal action by the Justice Department is warranted," she said. "We are discussing the matter with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has primary regulatory responsibility, and we're considering what, if any, statutes apply."

Miss Reno noted that the review includes a look at both "civil or criminal processes to see what, if anything, is appropriate."

Several members of Congress have questioned whether Bridgestone conspired to withhold information from regulators, the public and others on potential safety defects on the company's tires. Firestone tires have been linked by highway safety regulators to at least 88 U.S. deaths.

Mr. Leahy, in an Aug. 28 letter to the attorney general requesting the review, said he was concerned that "criminal laws may be implicated" by Bridgestone's failure to report the tire defects to federal regulators.

He said he was "especially troubled to learn … that Ford was replacing these tires more than a year ago in a number of foreign markets in the Middle East, Far East and South America without informing American safety authorities or the American public."

Seventy percent of the tire models recalled are mounted on Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles, the best-selling SUV in the United States.

Justice Department officials said yesterday it was not clear whether the department would proceed in a criminal case against Bridgestone but that a civil case could be possible if NHTSA referred the matter to the department.

A civil case might be built on accusations that Bridgestone did not promptly report information on the company's defective tires to regulators a matter normally handled by NHTSA through administrative fines, the officials said. They noted, however, the law was not clear on whether the company was required to notify the agency about the defective tires.

A civil statute carries a maximum fine of $925,000 for failure to report safety problems within five days of their discovery.

Tire and car makers are not required to report overseas recalls to American regulators.

Last month, Bridgestone recalled 6.5 million of the 47 million Firestone tires 15-inch ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT manufactured since 1990.

The traffic-safety agency has received more than 1,400 complaints about the tires, including reports of 88 deaths and 250 injuries. The tires have fallen apart on moving vehicles, often causing them to roll over and resulting in the deaths and injuries of passengers. The agency began an investigation into the accidents in May.

Lawmakers at two congressional hearings Wednesday accused Ford and Firestone which had been doing business together since 1906 of knowing the accidents were caused by the bad tires as early as 1992 but not disclosing the information because their officials were afraid of a costly recall.

"I believe all of the principal parties here today let the American public down," Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., Virginia Republican, said at the beginning of the House Commerce telecommunications, trade and consumer protection subcommittee hearing.

Ford Chief Executive Officer Jacques Nasser, in prepared testimony before the House Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations panel, said his company's vehicles are safe.

"This is a tire issue, not a vehicle issue," he said, repeating the company's stance.

Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, chairman of the committee and Louisiana Republican, said the hearing was meant as a way to understand what went wrong, "and to make sure this never happens again," he said.

About 75 percent of the accidents have occurred in Southern and Southwestern states, where temperatures are high year-round, increasing the likelihood for tire blowouts. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and 14 other countries began having problems with the tire models in the recall as far back as the mid-1990s, and Ford began a recall in those nations more than a year before the U.S. recall.

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