Toyota seeks to limit damage after arrest of global communications chief
TOKYO -- Akio Toyoda defended his “close friend” and global communications chief Julie Hamp a day after her arrest for allegedly importing narcotic painkillers and promised that the police investigation will show that the company’s first female upper-level executive had no intention of breaking Japanese law.
Toyota Motor Corp.’s president said there are still many unknowns in the case and refrained from answering some sensitive questions, citing legal and privacy concerns. But Toyoda praised Hamp’s character and contributions to the company and discouraged a rush to justice.
In a sign of contrition, Toyota pulled advertising from key evening television slots in Japan to maintain a subdued profile as domestic media latched onto the story. Toyota also canceled a press event to announce a new range of turbodiesel engines.
“I apologize for the confusion surrounding recent events,” Toyoda said at a hastily called evening news conference today, the day after police arrested Hamp at a Tokyo hotel. “In addition to being a close friend of mine, Julie Hamp is an invaluable member of Toyota’s team.”
Toyoda applauded the American businesswoman’s efforts to acculturate to Japan as the first non-Japanese Toyota executive to take up permanent residence at the company’s home base. He also reaffirmed his commitment to diversifying upper management with more non-Japanese executives.
“We are confident, however, that once the investigation is complete, it will be revealed there was no intention on Julie’s part to violate any law,” said Toyoda, who tried to promote a more international mindset at the company’s Japan operations with a personnel shake-up in March.
At the time, Toyota promoted Hamp, 55, in addition to a Frenchman and an African-American man to unprecedented positions of power at its global headquarters. The goal: Inject a wider perspective into an upper management dominated almost exclusively by older Japanese men.
President Toyoda, grandson of the carmaker's founder and the third family member at the helm, aims to reform Toyota into a business more representative of its global reach.
As the world's biggest automaker, Toyota derives about three-quarters of its sales from overseas. About 80 percent of the company's 338,875 employees are outside Japan.
Toyoda said the new personnel priorities won’t change. “We will maintain this diversity promotion policy,” he said, adding that he felt a personal bond of responsibility to Hamp because she was a direct report to him. “All of them are like my children. Protecting the children is the responsibility of the parents,” Toyoda said. “Ms. Hamp is a very important, trustworthy friend.”
But as the week shows, cultural complexities still throw up roadblocks.
Hamp, who was General Motors Europe's communications chief from 2006 to 2008, was appointed a Toyota managing officer and chief communications officer in April. She told police she did not think she had imported an illegal substance, a spokesman for Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department said.
That is especially true with Japan’s drug control laws, so stringent they even prohibit over-the-counter medicines common in the United States, such as Sudafed or Actifed.
The police spokesman said oxycodone was sent via international mail from the U.S. to Tokyo's Narita Airport. The package was intercepted by customs agents at the airport on June 11, he said.
While oxycodone is a legally prescribed medicine in the United States and Japan, its import is heavily controlled by a thatch of paperwork and government approvals, said an official at the Compliance and Narcotics Division of Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
With proper approval, people may import the drug via hand luggage, but sending it by mail is prohibited in all cases, he said. Those traveling with a prescription from the U.S. must fill out an application from Japan’s health ministry and receive approval before arriving in Japan, he said.
On Friday, Japanese media reports cited police investigators as saying that a parcel addressed to Hamp and labeled "necklaces" contained 57 oxycodone pills buried at the bottom or in packages. The parcel contained toy necklaces and pendants as well as the pills, they said.
Toyoda said his company was cooperating fully with the investigation.
Senior Managing Officer Shigeru Hayakawa, who was also present at the Friday news conference, said authorities have not searched Toyota offices or looked through Hamp’s files.
Toyota executives declined to say whether Hamp had a prescription for the oxycodone or whether she had a medical condition that necessitated the addictive painkiller.
Hamp was hired by Toyota Motor North America just three years ago as the company sought to repair an image battered by a string of recalls and class-action lawsuits.
She had previously spent five years at PepsiCo and, before that, a quarter-century at GM.
Hamp’s arrest is an embarrassment for Toyota, which had positioned her as a rising star in breathing American-style public relations into a closed and opaque Japanese operation.
But Toyoda’s quick response by personally appearing at the news conference a day after the arrest to address the matter showed a marked improvement from his reaction during the 2010 unintended acceleration recalls. At that time, the company was criticized for being slow and evasive.
Hiroaki Okamoto, a criminal defense lawyer at the Nakamura International Criminal Defense Office in Tokyo who is not involved in Hamp’s case, told the Reuters news agency that the large number of pills meant that, if found guilty, she could face years in prison, followed by deportation.
If found guilty, it would be difficult for her to win a suspended sentence, even without an intent to sell, because of the quantity of pills, Okamoto told Reuters.