Prosecuting car execs can be tricky

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 car company with a $1.2 billion penalty but brought no criminal charges against individual executives, an unsatisfying resolution for consumer activists who say prison is the best deterrence for corporate malfeasance.

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.

The same internal memos and public statements that buttressed the case against the corporation might well have been inadmissible as evidence against specific individuals.

And it can be hard to prove that the person whose name is on a certain damning document was directly responsible for the misstatements or knew that they were wrong, legal experts say.

While the case against the company may be overwhelming, lodging personal responsibility for misstatements “is more difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University.