Toyota was fined a record $16.4 million for its slow response in disclosing issues related to sticking accelerator pedals.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Toyota “put consumers at risk” by failing to swiftly notify authorities about potentially defective accelerator pedals on 2.3 million vehicles. LaHood said Toyota knew about the problem in late September but did not issue the recall until late January, thereby violating a federal law that requires an automaker to notify the government of a safety defect within five business days.

“They did not disclose within five days that there was a problem. They didn’t disclose it for several months, so we fined them the maximum amounts and they decided to pay it and that means they knew they did something wrong,” LaHood told reporters in St. Louis. “They did try to hide it-that’s what we accused them of-and they’ve agreed to that.”

Toyota said it agreed to the fine to avoid a lengthy legal battle but denied the government’s allegation that it broke the law. In a statement, Toyota said, “we could have done a better job of sharing relevant information within our global operations and outside the company, but we did not try to hide a defect to avoid dealing with a safety problem.”

Even worse, several days before Toyota announced the recall, a U.S. executive at the company wrote in an internal e-mail, “we need to come clean” about accelerator problems, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. “We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet,” wrote Irv Miller, group vice president for environment and public affairs. “The time to hide on this one is over.”

Recently I received an e-mail from a reader in response to my April column,Quality Every Day, in which I discussed how quality is a part of every day life; it doesn’t stop when we leave work in the evening.

The reader said the column hit home as he is a former-quality professional, “with integrity who lost his job for not signing off [on] whatever the managers wanted. First-level quality professionals who cannot be corrupted pay with job insecurity. My personal experience in the field was ‘play ball or you are off the team.’”

There is a time for playing ball and there is a time for taking your ball and leaving. It hardly seems fair that Toyota is essentially dealt a slap on the wrist-the fine is reportedly the equivalent of a little more than $2 for every vehicle the company sold around the globe in 2009-while the fine for the average worker can be his livelihood.

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