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WASHINGTON, D.C., and TORRANCE, Calif.  — The turmoil surrounding accelerators in recalled Toyota vehicles took another dramatic turn on Monday. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made known plans to level a steep fine against the automaker.

LaHood indicated that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is seeking the maximum civil penalty of $16.375 million against Toyota. The secretary and NHTSA contend the OEM failed to notify them about the "dangerous sticky pedal" defect for at least four months. They said they believe Toyota made this decision despite knowing of the potential risk to consumers.

NHTSA reiterated that approximately 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. were recalled in late January for the sticky pedal defect.

The penalty being sought against Toyota would be the largest civil penalty ever assessed against an auto manufacturer by NHTSA, according to officials.

Toyota executives released a statement later on Monday afternoon in response to NHTSA's fine announcement.

"While we have not yet received their letter, we understand that NHTSA has taken a position on this recall," automaker officials said.

"We have already taken a number of important steps to improve our communications with regulators and customers on safety-related matters as part of our strengthened overall commitment to quality assurance. These include the appointment of a new chief quality officer for North America and a greater role for the region in making safety-related decisions," they went on to add.

LaHood emphasized that automakers are legally obligated to notify NHTSA within five business days if they determine that a safety defect exists. He indicated that NHTSA learned through documents obtained from Toyota that the company knew of the sticky pedal defect since at least Sept. 29, 2009.

On that day, federal officials noted that Toyota issued repair procedures to their distributors in 31 European countries and Canada to address complaints of sticky accelerator pedals, sudden increases in engine RPM, and sudden vehicle acceleration. They also found the documents showed that Toyota was aware that consumers in the United States were experiencing the same problems.

"We now have proof that Toyota failed to live up to its legal obligations," LaHood insisted in a statement.

"Worse yet, they knowingly hid a dangerous defect for months from U.S. officials and did not take action to protect millions of drivers and their families. For those reasons, we are seeking the maximum penalty possible under current laws," he went on to point out.

NHTSA repeated that the penalty announced on Monday relates specifically to the sticky pedal defect. The agency added that it's still investigating Toyota to determine if there are further violations that warrant more penalties.

"Safety is our top priority and we will vigorously pursue companies that put consumers at risk," noted NHTSA administrator David Strickland.

"We will continue to hold Toyota accountable for any additional violations we find in our ongoing investigation," Strickland added.

NHTSA recounted that back on Feb. 16 it launched an investigation into the timeliness and scope of the three recent Toyota recalls and required the automaker to turn over documents and explanations related to its adherence to U.S. auto safety laws.

Officials made a preliminary determination on this fine based on a review of documents Toyota has provided. To date, Toyota has submitted more than 70,000 pages of documents, which NHTSA officials said they're continuing to review. 

Editor's note: Stay tuned to Auto Remarketing for more details and updates as this situation develops.