Critics in Congress say Toyota pulled strings at NHTSA -- with help from two former insiders, reports CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.
Christopher Santucci's job at NHTSA was to conduct defects investigations of automakers and some of his probes were into Toyota.
At some point, while working at NHTSA, Santucci negotiated himself a job at Toyota - the very company he'd investigated. Santucci testified two months ago in a lawsuit against Toyota.
"Were there any procedures within NHTSA that would govern your negotiating a job with an entity that you were supposed to be regulating?" he was asked
"Not that I'm aware," Santucci said.
In 2003, Santucci gave his two weeks' notice and joined Toyota's team, working under the very man who'd been his Toyota contact: Christopher Tinto. Tinto also used to work for NHTSA.
Once together at Toyota, records show the two helped negotiate with their former NHTSA colleagues to limit probes into Toyotas surging out of control. They convinced NHTSA to focus only on the "brief burst" accelerations, ruling out so-called "long duration" events that have allegedly led to accidents and deaths.
"You use the word 'negotiated'... We discussed the scope," Santucci said.
But "negotiated" is exactly the word used in Toyota internal documents obtained by CBS News. One in 2006 says NHTSA requested information on "a broad testing and analysis question" regarding Camry and Solara engine surge. It says Toyota "negotiated to reduce the response" to provide much less data.
Consumer watchdog Joan Claybrook headed up NHTSA way before Toyota's problems -- and says NHTSA ex-employees are key.
"They maneuvered and manipulated and I think bamboozled the agency," Claybrook said.
Yesterday, Congress asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood if there's a conflict.
"Absolutely not," LaHood said.
Other automakers say -- unlike Toyota-- they do not use ex-NHTSA people to deal with NHTSA on defect cases.
Toyota says its employees' only interest is "the safety of every single owner of one of our vehicles."
At Christopher Santucci's deposition, we found a third ex-NHTSA figure helping out Toyota off-camera: former NHTSA attorney Kenneth Weinstein.
For his part in limiting the investigations, Santucci said NHTSA got exactly what it was looking for.
"You say it worked out well for Toyota," Santucci said. "I think it worked out well for both the agency and Toyota."
Maybe not so well, in the end. NHTSA is now investigating whether Toyota provided all the materials it should have over the years. And the inspector general is investigating NHTSA's role.