WASHINGTON - The U.S. Transportation Department Tuesday demanded documents related to Toyota’s massive recalls in the United States
 to find out if the automaker acted swiftly enough.

Toyota, meanwhile, said it will idle production temporarily at
Texas and Kentucky plants over concerns the recalls could lead to
big stockpiles of unsold vehicles.

The legal documents demand that Toyota tell the government when
and how the company learned of the safety defects in millions of
vehicles over the entrapment of gas pedals by floor mats and sticky
accelerators. The documents were delivered to Toyota on Tuesday and
the company must respond within 30-to-60 days or face fines.

The intensifying government investigation of Toyota and
production halts at its assembly plants represented another sign of
the ripple effect the recall of 8.5 million vehicles has had on the
world’s No. 1 automaker.

Toyota faces separate probes by the Obama
administration and Congress as it struggles to maintain its loyal
customer base and its reputation for safety and quality.

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Toyota said it was halting production temporarily in San
Antonio, Texas, and Georgetown, Ky., to address concerns that too
many unsold vehicles may be building up at dealerships because of
the large recalls.

Company spokesman Mike Goss said the Texas plant, which builds
the Tundra pickup truck, would take production breaks for the weeks
of March 15 and April 12.

The Kentucky plant, which makes the
Camry, Avalon and Venza vehicles, plans to take a non-production
day on Feb. 26 and may not build vehicles on three more days in
March and April.

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In late January, Toyota halted production of recalled brands
throughout the United States for about a week.

The information requests from the government, similar to a
subpoena, follows criticism from consumer groups that the
Transportation Department was too soft on automakers and failed to
fine the companies or seek detailed information from them through
subpoena powers.

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Department of Transporation investigates
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has defended his
department’s handling of the Toyota investigation, calling the
Japanese automaker “a little safety deaf” about the safety
problems.

LaHood said the government urged Toyota to issue recalls
and sent federal safety officials to Japan to warn company
officials of the seriousness of the problems.

Under federal law, automakers must notify the DOT’s National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days of
determining that a safety defect exists and promptly conduct a
recall.

Government investigators are looking into whether Toyota
discovered the problems during preproduction or post-production of
the affected vehicles, whether their recalls covered all affected
vehicles and whether the company learned of the problems through
consumer complaints or internal tests.

Federal officials are focusing on the two major issues behind
the recalls — gas pedals that can become lodged on floor mats and
pedal systems that are “sticky,” making it harder for drivers to
press on the pedal or ease up on the gas.

The information requests seek detailed timelines on when Toyota
first became aware of the problems, how they handled complaints,
how much they have paid out in warranty claims over pedal problems,
internal communications about pedals and company officials involved
in making decisions about the issue.

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NHTSA also wants to know how seriously Toyota considered the
possibility that electronics of the gas pedal system may play a
role.

The company has said tests show that the electronics were not
to blame. But federal safety officials want to know how Toyota
dealt with complaints that might not be related to floor mats or
sticking pedals.

Kathleen DeMeter, the director of NHTSA’s Office of Defects
Investigation Enforcement, wrote that the agency was “seeking to
determine whether Toyota viewed the underlying defects too
narrowly ... without fully considering the broader issue of
unintended acceleration and any associated safety-related defects
that warrant recalls.”

Congress is also investigating
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding a hearing on the Toyota recalls on Feb. 24 and the House Energy and Commerce Committee has scheduled a Feb. 25 hearing.

Toyota Motor North America chief executive Yoshi Inaba, LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland are expected to testify at both meetings.

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The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has
scheduled a March 2 hearing but has not yet announced its witness
list.

Toyota has stepped up its lobbying ahead of the hearings by
highlighting its workers and U.S. production.

It flew production workers into Washington a day before a
blizzard last week to highlight the company’s commitment to quality
and safety.

The company also received help from the governors of
four states with Toyota plants — including Kentucky Gov. Steve
Beshear — who called on Congress to be fair to the automaker.
Toyota has been fixing vehicles under recall.

Toyota Vice President Bob Carter told reporters at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in Orlando, Fla., on Monday that the company had repaired about 500,000 of the 2.3 million vehicles recalled over a potentially sticky gas pedal.

Toyota president Akio Toyoda is expected to answer questions in
Japan Wednesday about the company’s recalls.