High price but no regrets for Israel’s gutsy Toyota whistle-blower

High price but no regrets for Israel’s gutsy Toyota whistle-blower

Translator Betsy Benjaminson — ‘a gnat biting the elephant’s toe’ — has lost half her income since speaking up in an auto maker’s fatal sudden-acceleration scandal

Lazar Berman is a former breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

No one would have blamed Betsy Benjaminson for giving up — in fact, no one would have blamed her for keeping quiet in the first place. After all, what chance did a single mother of four have, battling the world’s biggest auto manufacturer from her modest apartment in a Sderot building scarred by Kassam rockets?

Sure, she fought a good fight, they might have said, but the end was inevitable. A brave woman, but foolish. No one would have blamed her if she let her life collapse under the enormity of her fight.

But Benjaminson, the Cleveland-born translator who revealed Toyota’s cover-up of design flaws that killed drivers around the globe, did not give up. Nor did she let herself wallow in self-pity after losing two good jobs for revealing what she witnessed. Quite the opposite.

She is still in the fight against Toyota, “a gnat biting an elephant’s toe,” as she put it, and biting as hard as ever.

And Benjaminson has never felt more fulfilled.

Families erased

On February 25, 2007, retirees Bulent and Anne Ezal drove their 2005 Camry into the parking lot of Pelican Point Restaurant, a Pismo Beach, California, establishment on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Bulent parked the car, and the couple took in the majestic view of the ocean below before they were to head inside for lunch. Suddenly, the car started lurching uncontrollably toward the sea. The vehicle flew off the cliff, crashing on the rocks below. Bulent somehow survived, but his wife of 46 years died instantly.

Two and a half years later, off-duty California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor, his wife Cleofe, their 13-year-old daughter Mahala, and brother-in-law Chris Lastrella, were out for a Friday afternoon drive to Mahala’s soccer practice in a dealer-loaned 2009 Lexus ES 350.

Betsy Benjaminson (photo credit: courtesy)
Betsy Benjaminson (photo credit: courtesy)

Saylor, an Air Force veteran, often spent Fridays with his wife and only daughter, and this was shaping up to be a typical start to a weekend for the family.

It turned out to be anything but. While driving on Interstate 125 near San Diego, trouble began. The car started accelerating on its own, and Saylor couldn’t bring the vehicle under control.

A chilling 911 call recorded the family’s final moments.

”Our accelerator is stuck,” reports Lastrella, as the operator struggles to come up with a solution. “We’re in trouble – we can’t- there’s no brakes… End freeway half mile. We’re approaching the intersection, we’re approaching the intersection. Hold on, pray. Pray. Oh shoot there’s…uh oh…” The recording ends with the family’s screams as the vehicle sped through the busy intersection, crashed through a fence and landed in a riverbed.

All four passengers died in the crash and the resulting fire.

A family erased.

Floor mats and bad drivers

Over the next two years, many more cases of uncontrolled acceleration in Toyota vehicles surfaced. But the story didn’t take off until late 2009, when the company issued a massive recall of its Camry and Prius models, claiming that driver’s side floor mats lodged under the gas pedal were to blame for the sudden acceleration problems.

Weeks later, Toyota issued another recall, blaming a mechanical problem for the faulty accelerators.

The US media went into a frenzy. Congress and government agencies opened investigations. Sales nose-dived and stock plummeted. Toyota was forced to recall over 8 million cars in the worst public relations disaster in its history.

The episode reached its climax in February 2010, when Toyota’s president and CEO, Akio Toyoda, apologized in front of Congress, saying he was “deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced.” He also extended his personal condolences to the Saylor family.

It seemed the problem was solved.

As its reputation largely recovered, Toyota continued to blame floor mats and driver error, not internal electronics. The automaker’s strategy was often to blame the drivers for pressing the gas instead of the brakes when they tried to stop. Defending itself from a suit from the family of Paul Van Alfen, a Utah resident who crashed into a stone wall in 2010, killing himself and his son’s fiancée, Toyota claimed that “any injuries to the Plaintiffs caused by the crash were caused in whole or in part by Paul Van Alfen’s actions.”

Toyota also blamed Bulent Ezal for the crash that killed his wife. He insists in no uncertain terms that the car accelerated on its own.

“All of a sudden the car surged with force,” he told reporters, “and I was thrown back into the seat…My foot was absolutely positively on the brake.”

An August 2010 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration supported Toyota’s claims, finding that human error, not Toyota electronics, was to blame. “The verdict is in,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period.”

Ray Lahood, 1999 (photo credit: House Committee on Veterans' Affairs)
Ray Lahood, 1999 (photo credit: House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs)

A NASA investigation into the possibility of electronic malfunctions causing the acceleration problem, released in February 2011, found no evidence to pin the blame on the electronics.

It seemed Toyota had successfully beat off the attack, and breathed a sigh of relief as Congress and the media packed up and retreated over the hills.

But the company didn’t notice one Israeli translator whom it had let through the gates.

The Ghost in the machine

In the summer of 2010, the American translation firm where Benjaminson worked as a Japanese translator was hired by Toyota’s defense law firm. Her expertise came from her time studying at a Japanese art university in the 1970s, where she gained fluency in the language.

As a translator, Benjaminson had access to thousands of Toyota’s classified documents spanning from 2002-2010, mostly run-of-the-mill accident reports and records of repairs, but also internal business memos and emails from engineers. As the months went by, a pattern began to emerge from the static of the corporate correspondence and technical manuals, an occasional whisper that turned increasingly into a roar she could not ignore.

Toyota was hiding the truth about what caused the sudden unintended acceleration, she believed.

She tried to dismiss it at first, passing Toyota’s response off as standard corporate spin, a major company trying to put its best foot forward. “But when I heard the top PR guy say things like, ‘We will crush our opponents in the media,’ I thought, ‘This is over the line,” she said.

Benjaminson dug deeper, she felt she had no choice but to reveal what she saw, consequences be damned.

Despite the strident denials from Toyota, and the US government reports, Benjaminson felt that the documents in her hands proved that Toyota engineers knew there was a serious problem with their cars causing sudden acceleration, something well beyond oversized floor mats.

“There was a great number of engineers confused about why it was happening,” she told the Times of Israel. They even blamed the problem, in emails to one another, on a “ghost in the machine.”

But the ghost wasn’t floor mats or driver error, and the company knew it.

The engineers “sometimes admitted it was the electronic parts, the engine computer, the software, or interference by radio waves,” Benjaminson wrote.

It took about a year of translating for Toyota until she really started “getting it,” Benjaminson said. “I began to notice discrepancies between what the engineers were saying, which focused on electronics, and stuff from the executives, PR people, and lawyers, about how to fool the public.”

“Efforts were made to find floor mats that would trap gas pedals and conveniently explain UA [unintended acceleration]. The R&D chief admitted that incompletely developed cars had gone into production and that quality control of parts was poor or nonexistent.”

Hearing about the Ezal’s death affected her profoundly. “His wife died right away,” she told Channel 2, “and afterwards I thought, I can do something meaningful in helping prevent this horrible kind of tragedy, or I can turn away, and just keep making my paycheck, and just be a little screw in a huge machine. So I made a choice that I can make a difference, I can make my life meaningful.”

“I can maybe change the world with these documents. Just a little.”


Tucked away in the western Negev desert, Benjaminson hadn’t followed closely the news dominating American headlines. But now she started reading vociferously, combing through coverage of the congressional hearings and the corporate response. Benjaminson reached out to leading automotive engineering experts to help her analyze the technical material she translated.

By early 2012, Benjaminson felt confident enough in her belief that Toyota was intentionally misleading the public about the uncontrollable acceleration deaths to turn to the media.

Frank Visconi's car had five alleged sudden acceleration incidents in a few months in a 2007 Toyota Tacoma.  (photo credit: counrtesy, Frank Visconi)
Frank Visconi’s car had five alleged sudden acceleration incidents in a few months in a 2007 Toyota Tacoma. (photo credit: counrtesy, Frank Visconi)

First, she consulted her Jerusalem rabbi, an authority in business ethics. Then, to get a sense of exactly what kind of danger she was putting herself into, Benjaminson turned to Heskia-Hacmun, a Tel Aviv law firm. They warned her that she would be breaching her confidentiality agreement with Toyota.

“They advised me about all the risks,” Benjaminson said. “I ignored that advice. But they had my back, so I had courage to forge ahead.”

“The partners, Amos Hacmun and Dor Heskia, provided valuable advice and genuine, steadfast support during this extremely difficult journey.”

At first she leaked documents anonymously. The Huffington Post published the first story, about a Toyota executive’s concern over the company’s public statements, in January 2012.

“A top Toyota executive wrote that the automaker colored the truth during the furor over sudden acceleration problems to make the company’s story seem more palatable to the public, according to a document obtained by The Huffington Post,” read the report. “In an email sent in 2010, Toyota’s quality chief urged company officials to cease taking liberties with the truth, asserting that they were putting Toyota’s credibility at risk.”

CNN was the next to publish. Benjaminson turned over almost 100 technical documents to the network, which ran a story on one of the documents from 2006 that showed engineers discussing an electronic software problem that caused “sudden unintended acceleration” during pre-production trials.

If true, it would mean the potentially lethal problem was still not fixed.

Toyota, after trying for weeks to convince the network to spike the story, challenged the accuracy of the translation – as well as independent translations commissioned by CNN – and still refused to acknowledge that a software problem caused the sudden acceleration.

In this March 31, 2010 file photo, the Toyota logo is seen on a car displayed at the New York International Auto Show in New York. (photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
In this March 31, 2010 file photo, the Toyota logo is seen on a car displayed at the New York International Auto Show in New York. (photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Not surprisingly, Benjaminson was fired by her translation agency after they found out she was behind the leaks.

But since her name was still not public, she landed another client who paid well for legal translations. Benjaminson also began working with Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, feeding his whistle-blower program documents with which to initiate Judiciary Committee investigations into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s study.

Life was good — she was financially secure, and had done her part to put some pressure on Toyota.

But Benjaminson didn’t stop there. She decided to put everything at risk when she decided to release her identity. Now, Benjaminson was putting herself in the crosshairs of a massive international corporation.

Why did she take that leap?

“When I went to Congress,” Benjaminson explained, “I got a big lesson in how DC works…An anonymous source is never as credible, can never bring the same moral outrage. If David fought Goliath from behind a rock, would you really say he was fighting?”

“I said, ‘I better give it all I got.”

In December 2012, Toyota settled a class action lawsuit for $1.3 billion, but the settlement kept all the technical facts secret. Corporate Counsel magazine conducted an in-depth investigation of exactly what the secrets were, and in March 2013, with the publication of the article, her name was made public.

“Maybe it was stupid,” she conceded, “but honest.”

Toyota’s opponents received a morale boost from her decision to go public, Benjaminson said. But she was fired again, as no company trusted her anymore with classified documents.

“That was a difficult moment,” she said. “Very difficult… I more or less betrayed them in order to serve the general public.”

Out of work again, Benjaminson kept fighting. She reached out to Toyota victims and their lawyers, and collaborated with automotive experts skeptical of Toyota’s claims.

Her efforts have paid off. Hundreds came forward to seek legal action against Toyota for unintended sudden acceleration injuries and deaths.

In 2012, the company agreed to a settlement of more than $1 billion to make hundreds of lawsuits disappear without admitting wrongdoing. But those suing for wrongful death and injury were not covered by that settlement.

And those plaintiffs have seen recent success. In October, Toyota lost its first lawsuit that argued electronic design flaws caused crashes when an Oklahoma jury found the company liable for a 2007 crash that killed one woman and seriously injured another. Toyota blamed the driver.

In this Feb. 8, 2010, photo, a modified accelerator pedal from a Toyota 2007 Hybrid Camry is replaced at Jack Taylor's Alexandria Toyota-Scion in Alexandria, Va.  (photo credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
In this Feb. 8, 2010, photo, a modified accelerator pedal from a Toyota 2007 Hybrid Camry is replaced at Jack Taylor’s Alexandria Toyota-Scion in Alexandria, Va. (photo credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Toyota was still denying any wrongdoing in November, 2013, during a California lawsuit. “Despite nearly three years of litigating this case and unprecedented access to Toyota’s source code,” wrote a Toyota spokeswoman in an email to Bloomberg, “plaintiff’s counsel have never replicated unintended acceleration in a Toyota vehicle and have failed to demonstrate that any alleged defect actually caused the accident at issue in this case.

Suddenly, on December 12, the federal judge presiding over many of the suits against Toyota announced that the corporation was moved to an “intensive settlement process” to deal with the nearly 200 suits still facing it.

The gnat had taken the fight out of the elephant.

More important than money

Despite her success revealing what she calls a cover-up, Benjaminson was forced to find work at a translation company that identifies its translators only by a number, where she makes only half of her previous salary. She still lives in the hard-luck town of Sderot with her youngest son. Two of her boys moved away from Israel to pursue careers in Europe and the US.

But Benjaminson is sure she made the right decision.

“Mark Twain said, ‘A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.’ I feel that the truth has now got its boots on, and that feels good,” she said.

“I am at peace with what I’ve done because one day I will be gone. I hope that I will have instilled the values of truth and kindness in my children’s hearts.”

“Those are more important than money.”

And Benjaminson still carries on her fight, talking to victims, congressional staff, and media. Anything to lend a hand in the fight against Toyota.

Despite her lack of regret, there are still costs to her crusade.

“At the same time, a little bit, sometimes, she doesn’t pay attention to me,” her youngest son Moshe, 11, told Channel 2, “because she’s on the phone, this and that, and I’m a little less important. That’s how it seems from here.”

Still, the boy’s pride in his mother is obvious. “Many people tell me she is a brave woman,” said Moshe, “many people tell me that only she could do something like this. And I believe them, because my mother is truly a special woman. I said to her that she should continue. It’s good.”

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