Car Trouble: Toyota vs the Whistle-blower From Israel

First, the American-Israeli translator leaked documents and then took her case to the Senate. She won’t rest until the Japanese car maker corrects what she claims are deadly flaws in its vehicles.

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If you ask Betsy Benjaminson why she risked her career and financial well-being by turning whistle-blower, she’ll be hard-pressed to offer a comprehensive answer.

Benjaminson, 57, a mother of four from Sderot and translator by profession, has in recent years waged a war with Toyota Motor Corporation, the world’s largest automaker. She doesn’t know what made her ignore the advice of her lawyers and leak thousands of secret Toyota documents that reveal, according to her, that the company was to blame for the deaths of drivers killed when the cars they were in suddenly accelerated. One thing she does know, though, is what prompted her actions: Bulent and Anne Ezal‫.‬‬

The Ezals, a retired California couple married for 46 years, decided, one day in early 2007, to take a drive. Heading along the Pismo Beach, they decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant atop a cliff 30 meters high, overlooking the Pacific Ocean‫.‬‬

Everything seemed fine when they reached the parking lot next to the restaurant. Bulent parked their 2005 Toyota Camry and the couple sat there a moment to admire the ocean view. But their enjoyment was short-lived. Within seconds, something went wrong with the car and it began lurching forward.

Bulent, an engineer by profession, applied the brakes but in vain. The car went out of control, accelerating rapidly on its own. Within seconds, the couple found themselves in mid-air, before they plunged into the rocks and sea below. Bulent managed to survive the devastating crash but his wife was killed instantly.

The accident was considered an isolated incident at the time and didn’t generate many headlines. Despite Bulent’s claim that an automotive malfunction was responsible for the crash, Toyota insisted – as it had in other cases where drivers complained about sudden (also known as unintended) acceleration – that he mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brakes, something he vehemently denied.

About three years later, the tragic story of the California couple was back in the news after it emerged that thousands of Toyota car owners had reported their cars experiencing sudden acceleration – or, if their luck ran out, were killed in accidents‫.‬‬

One well-known case involved Mark Saylor, who, in August 2009, was driving a Lexus ES350 that crashed near San Diego after the gas pedal became stuck. Saylor and everyone else in the car – his wife, 13-year-old daughter and brother-in-law – died in the crash‫.‬‬

The Saylor tragedy, unlike that of the Ezal family, hurt Toyota badly (Lexus is Toyota’s luxury vehicle division). It led to what turned out to be the company’s greatest public relations fiasco ever, one it has yet to fully recover from.

Following increasing reports of death caused by the unintentional acceleration of cars made by Toyota, the company was forced to recall over 8 million vehicles in late 2009 and early 2010 – more than the total number of cars it sold throughout 2009. With its stock price taking a nosedive and estimated repair costs in the billions, Toyota’s already tarnished reputation as a maker of safe and reliable cars was dealt a devastating blow‫.‬

‬U.S. regulators began investigating Toyota. Other governments also entered the picture, and throughout the world owners of Toyota-made cars brought them in for repairs or tried to unload them as quickly as possible‫.‬‬

As with most scandals, though, public interest began to wane after a while. Toyota recovered and was the world’s best-selling carmaker in 2012 and 2013. It also turned its attention toward dealing with civil lawsuits and government investigations arising over the sudden acceleration issue. Thousands of documents, letters and emails flowed between company headquarters in Japan and its offices and the courts in the United States during the second half of 2010, including correspondence between the company’s top-level executives, its engineering and public relations departments, and internal memos.

Most of the documents were in Japanese and had to be translated by someone. Unfortunately for Toyota, that someone was Betsy Benjaminson‫.‬‬

‫‘The dots began connecting’‬‬‬

Benjaminson, at the time living in a moshav near Sderot in southern Israel, was employed by a translation agency used by a New York law firm representing Toyota. She found herself translating and editing thousands of the company’s internal documents, most of them classified. Prior to this she had signed a stringent nondisclosure agreement, aimed at ensuring that the material she was exposed to would remain confidential‫.‬‬

Benjaminson was a sought-after translator with over 30 years’ experience. She had a deep-rooted understanding of the Japanese language and was very thorough. During her career, she has translated documents from nearly every large Japanese corporation: Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, Nissan, as well as Toyota. The documents generated by Toyota shouldn’t have posed any problem to Benjaminson on a professional level, and certainly not any ethical quandaries‫.‬‬

‫“‬But this time it was really different,” says Benjaminson, eight months after being revealed as the whistle-blower who leaked thousands of secret documents from Toyota. ‬

“There was a whole team of translators and, since I was the most senior and most experienced, I was put in charge of editing the translations,” she recalls. “So I got to see many, many documents. Little by little, I started to see a pattern: Thousands of drivers were saying ‘My car sped up,’ and the PR guys were saying ‘Our cars are safe.’”‬‬

She was also exposed to thousands of complaints to Toyota from drivers. One was from Bulent Ezal. “The dots were connecting and there was no going back,” she says now.‬

Legal documents that Benjaminson was asked to translate had mostly been related to money: Side A thought that side B owed it money or vice versa – routine stuff. Now, for the first time in her career, she was exposed to an aspect of the corporate world that very few get to see: the tension between internal organizational alarm and the public relations composure conveyed by Toyota during that turbulent period, with the victims’ stories lurking in the background‫.‬‬

The documents passing through her hands, she vehemently insists, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt what Toyota had been, and still is, fervently denying – that a flaw existed in its electronic control system, and that the company knew about it but hid it from the public.

“I found that there was a completely different story being told to the public from what the engineers and PR guys were saying internally,” Benjaminson says‫.‬‬

Sudden acceleration is not a problem exclusive to Toyota (other companies, such as General Motors and Ford, have dealt with it in the past). At the core of the dispute between Toyota and Benjaminson and others is the company’s claim that the problem behind the sudden acceleration in its cars is mechanical, not electronic, and stems from faulty floor mats or driver error. Benjaminson, however, claims Toyota knew the flaw in its cars was likely electronic and concealed that knowledge while endangering the lives of drivers and passengers‫.‬‬

Becoming a whistle-blower

She began taking advantage of her long nights translating and editing the documents sent her way to try and connect the dots into a whole picture, establishing contact with leading safety experts and consulting with them.‬

The doubts, she says, consumed her. In her spare time she began reading more and more about the scandal, coming across Ezal’s story and other similar, shocking stories. She became convinced that this was a case of systematic deception; that Toyota knew about the flaws and concealed them, whitewashing reports that pointed out defects, thus endangering the lives of more drivers‫.‬‬

‫“‬A guy in California goes to lunch with his wife,” says Benjaminson. “He pulls his car into a parking spot and instead of stopping, the car flies over the cliff. You’d have to be a complete sociopath to say, ‘Not my problem.’”‬‬‬

Finally, she made the decision to start leaking documents. Ignoring her lawyers’ advice, Benjaminson began sending incriminating documents to reporters, explaining the exact significance of what they were reading and marking off the relevant paragraphs. She began establishing contact with the victims and assisting them. She had become a whistle-blower‫.‬‬

Over the past three years, Benjaminson’s crusade against Toyota has become her life’s work. She has zealously accumulated more and more documents, translating them and leaking them to the press. She switched sides and began translating documents for drivers and victims suing Toyota. All this was usually carried out surreptitiously, anonymously, without her becoming personally exposed publicly‫.‬‬

But at Toyota, says Benjaminson, they knew where the leaks were coming from. “When the first leak got out, they immediately knew it was me,” she says. “I was fired and the agency was fired.”‬‬

When asked what made her risk everything to take on an enormous enterprise with over $200 billion in annual revenues, Benjaminson says the answer “is complicated. For a lone driver, his life ruined, his family devastated, trying to get justice from such a huge corporation is almost impossible. I felt tremendous empathy for their position‫.‬‬

‫“‬I think that when you see a case like this, it’s a fork in the road,” she says. “You can just become a piece of the legal machinery and keep your feelings as a human out of it – or you can do what I did, which is betray the machine. I betrayed it, and I did it partly because I understood the machine is a little broken and if I didn’t do anything, more people will die and it will be on my conscience.‬

“It cost me a great deal financially and personally. I lost two big clients, one when I made the leak and the second one when I went public. So now I work for half the pay.”‬‬

Fortunately for Benjaminson, the Internet saved her career. The online translating service where she now works identifies translators by number only rather than by name, allowing for anonymity. “Every reputable agency I apply to won’t want anything to do with me,” she says. “That’s the price I pay, and that’s ok. If I wouldn’t have done it, then what? I would have worked 10-20 more years and then died. At least I’ve done something in my life that might have a positive influence on other people.”‬‬

Peek into company’s dark recesses

At first glance, it’s hard to picture Benjaminson – born in the United States and now a resident of Sderot – as a whistle-blower. She looks completely ordinary, dressed in the fashion of religious women (“I’m religious, sort of,” she says) and choosing her words slowly and carefully‫.‬‬

How did an American-Israeli come to translate Japanese?

“In my twenties I went to Japan to study at the Tokyo University of the Arts,” she explains. “I studied the language, calligraphy, karate, the whole culture. This was back in the 1970s, my rebellious period. I ended up living in Japan for four years and by that time I was fluent in Japanese, so I immediately became a sought-after translator. I got lots of work, and that hasn’t stopped until today really.”‬‬

Once Benjaminson had gone over all the documents she was given to translate, she became convinced Toyota wasn’t telling the truth. Internal correspondence between senior company officials, engineers and public relations revealed, she claims, a company in panic, one that had received complaints about sudden acceleration since 2003 and did nothing but try to cover up these reports at any cost.

Benjaminson began piecing together what she calls the big picture – that Toyota wasn’t being sincere and knew more than it was saying. But at first she only had unconfirmed suspicions. After all, she was just a translator, not an electronics engineer. So she brought the material to experts, who, she says, verified her claims. Next, seeking legal counsel, she found attorneys Dor Heskia and Amos Hacmun, principal partners at the Heskia-Hacmun Law Firm in Tel Aviv. They have been at her side ever since‫.‬‬

‫“‬We had a month, month and a half, during which we only checked whether we believed her and would go with her,” says Hacmun. After being convinced, they then tried to dissuade her from leaking the documents. “We told her the truth: It would be dangerous and wouldn’t be easy,” says Heskia. ‬

‫“‬I suppose it’s a combination of my nature and some of the experiences in my life,” says Benjaminson, explaining why she decided to ignore their advice. “In my private life there were times when I felt like a victim of corporations and the government. No more than any other person, but when you’re a small person facing a big organization, the organization wins. I suppose I noticed my own powerlessness and realized I could change the balance between ordinary people and corporations, if only a little.”‬‬

Although Benjaminson and her lawyers were all worried, none of their fears transpired, not even their mildest ones. Toyota simply didn’t react. The company didn’t sue Benjaminson, despite knowing where the leak was coming from, nor did it threaten her. Toyota refused to acknowledge her existence for over two years, claiming it was the plaintiffs who leaked the documents‫.‬‬

The effect her actions have had is hard to assess, since the plaintiffs’ lawyers can’t make official use of any of the leaked documents. But thanks to her efforts, they have been able to ascertain which documents to ask Toyota to produce and the points that can be raised in trial‫.‬‬

The only contact between her and the company, according to Benjaminson, was when she posted links to some of the documents on Facebook and Toyota asked Facebook to remove them.

Toyota’s official response to Benjaminson’s accusations is that she’s a translator with no understanding of electronics or vehicle engineering, and that the allegations are baseless‫.‬‬

Toyota responded to this article in a similar vein: “We believe the release of these documents is a clear violation of the translator’s obligations to both her employer at the time and Toyota. Our core values have always been to pursue the highest levels of safety and quality, and to continuously improve. More than three years old, these handpicked documents are presented in an inaccurate and misleading light. Since that time, multiple independent evaluations have found no electronic-based cause of high-speed acceleration in Toyota vehicles.”‬‬

At first, Benjaminson opted to release the thousands of documents to the press in one go. This strategy failed because reporters couldn’t process such a bulk of information. She then started passing on individual documents that, she believed, would bear out her claims. Media coverage of her documents began appearing in places like CNN and Huffington Post, but even this wasn’t sufficient for her.‬

In 2012 Benjaminson flew to the United States and, accompanied by safety experts confirming her claims, handed over the documents in her possession to the staffs of senators and congressmen. She met with Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who followed up with a stern letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), expressing concern that the electronics problems in Toyota cars hadn’t been resolved‫.‬‬

‘‬Investigation was a joke‫‬‬’

Benjaminson also established contact with the NASA engineers who had written a previous report clearing Toyota of any blame: “Two scientists there talked openly to me, and they told me this whole investigation was a joke, that it was not scientific at all, that they [the regulators] didn’t give them any documents, drawings, no failed vehicles, no failed parts. They told me they did manage to get their hands on some pedals and failed parts, and they began to find things wrong. And then one day they came in, scooped everything up and took everything away. They told me more than a few times how embarrassed they were to be a part of something this crazy, and that some of them refused to sign the report.”‬‬

Early last year, Benjaminson realized that she needed her documents validated by outside experts. She also realized that remaining anonymous wasn’t working. Her identity as the source of the leaked documents‫ was first revealed last March, in an article by journalist David Hechler in the legal affairs magazine Corporate Counsel

The magazine passed the thousands of documents she provided to four independent vehicle safety experts, who all agreed they didn’t contain any particular smoking gun pointing to a electronic flaw responsible for sudden acceleration or proving that Toyota concealed information from the public. However, they did determine that the documents belied Toyota’s efforts at calming the public and raised many questions regarding the credibility of Toyota’s claims about the safety of its systems‫.‬‬

More than 300 complaints in 2013

Toyota has repeatedly claimed that the problem isn’t connected with its cars’ electronic throttle control system. But a growing number of experts claim many questions remain unanswered‫.‬‬

According to Corporate Counsel magazine, independent experts have admitted some of the accidents were caused by flawed floor mats or by drivers pressing on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal. But they see most cases and exchanges of emails between Toyota engineers pointing to some of the causes for the problem remaining unclear, and that the large number of complaints can only be explained by a flaw in the company’s electronics‫.‬‬

Last October, things took a new twist: An Oklahoma jury decided that Toyota was liable in a 2007 incident where a woman died after the Toyota Camry in which she was a passenger suddenly accelerated and crashed into a wall. The company was ordered to pay $3 million in damages – the first time a jury had found that a flaw in Toyota’s electronics systems was responsible for sudden acceleration (Toyota had previously been exonerated in two similar cases).‬

Perhaps anticipating such a verdict, Toyota changed its strategy in the past two years and had begun trying to settle all the lawsuits.

In December 2012, it agreed to pay the enormous sum of $1.3 billion to settle a class action brought against it by California drivers with respect to the sudden acceleration problem. Last July, it agreed to pay another $1.6 billion in a similar settlement. But in neither case did Toyota admit to any liability‫.‬‬

Two months after the Oklahoma verdict, The New York Times reported that Toyota intends to settle all the cases concerning sudden acceleration filed against it in U.S. courts. It is believed Toyota is trying to put the whole affair behind it, but Benjaminson doesn’t intend to back down.

The real story, she says, isn’t the damages Toyota will pay, but the fact that the problems haven’t been solved, and that dangerous cars are still on the road. She says that in 2013 alone, there were more than 300 complaints of sudden acceleration in the United States.‬

‫“‬They’re on the defensive now,” she says. “They have to settle these cases.” But her role isn’t over. She continues working with others to uncover what she claims is the truth about Toyota. “This gave me a place in the circle of the truth tellers about Toyota: bloggers, engineers, victims, safety experts from Washington. We’re like a team. For a case this complicated, you need a whole team of whistle-blowers, not just one whistle-blower.”‬‬‬

Benjaminson hopes the fact she emerged relatively unscathed will encourage others to do the same. “No lightning came down and struck me dead,” she says. “I was able to make a difference, even if that difference is mainly secret. I guess I kind of ruined the translation business a little bit – a legal blogger in Japan warned Japanese corporations that after what I did, they shouldn’t hire translators anymore, only licensed attorneys – but I was able to be a good role model for my children and show them telling the truth pays off.

“Many people who work for corporations encounter things they think are wrong,” she concludes, “but they do nothing because they feel they can’t give up their paycheck. But because I went public, who knows … maybe other people saw that and will do something in their lives.”‬‬

Betsy Benjaminson flanked by her lawyers Dor Heskia (left) and Amos Hacmun.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Betsy BenjaminsonCredit: Tomer Appelbaum
Toyota Motor Corp. logo. Credit: AP

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