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The Transport Ministry lodged a criminal accusation Friday with police against Mitsubishi Motors Corp. for allegedly concealing approximately 1,700 user complaints last year — a scandal that prompted MMC President Katsuhiko Kawasoe the same day to announce his intention to step down.

The ministry believes MMC violated the Road Vehicles Law. It is the first time a criminal accusation has been filed against an automaker on suspicion of violating the law over recalls.

With the filing of the accusation, the Metropolitan Police Department is expected to launch a full-fledged investigation into longtime irregularities by the automaker.

The MPD has twice searched MMC’s head office in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, for fear the company might destroy evidence.

The ministry also sent documents to the Tokyo District Court to slap administrative penalties for the alleged secret repairs MMC carried out on 800 defective autos without a public recall between September 1998 and May.

The ministry also suspended model registration of new MMC autos until it finishes examining the firm’s quality checking processes, which could affect MMC’s schedule for releasing products.

“We took actions against a series of illicit acts, considering their vicious nature, ” Transport Minister Hajime Morita told reporters.

MMC has requested the registration of six remodeled autos, but the suspension period could last one or two months, a ministry official said.

During inspections in March and November 1999, the automaker submitted documents of over 851 cases of user complaints, but the ministry suspects documents on about 1,700 cases were hidden from authorities.

MMC admitted it systematically hid user complaint documents for at least 23 years, but the ministry decided not to file complaints over cases before the two inspections because the statute of limitations is three years.

The scandal-hit automaker could be slapped with a fine of up to 200,000 yen for the last year’s concealment, in total, based on the Road Vehicles Law, ministry officials said.

As for the concealment of auto recalls, MMC secretly repaired four kinds of defective parts used in six auto models, totaling 800 units, including the luxury sedan Debonair and a model in the Fuso bus series.

A fine of up to 1 million yen could be imposed for each of the four cases that MMC should have recalled, according to ministry officials.

The Transport Ministry will also exclude MMC from auto procurement bids of the ministry, Meteorological Agency and Japan Coast Guard for 18 months, the longest suspension period that the ministry ever imposed in a penalty. The ministry will soon call top executives of major automakers to raise their awareness, and will order the Japan Automobile Manufacturers’ Association and other auto industry groups to review their recall procedures, said the officials.

Ministry officials also said they will consider reforms in the recall system, including beefing up inspection teams and introducing direct information gathering of consumer complaints.

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