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Firestone provided mislabeled tires to Ford Motor Co. in Venezuela

SHARE Firestone provided mislabeled tires to Ford Motor Co. in Venezuela

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said it provided some tires to Ford Motor Co. in Venezuela that did not have a safety layer Ford had requested even though the tires were marked as having the layer.

Venezuelan authorities are investigating the tires in connection with 62 accidents there and are expected to submit a report to the country's attorney general that could lead to fines or criminal prosecution against the tiremaker and Ford.

Bridgestone/Firestone said the labeling mistake has been corrected and the company has no plans to a conduct a voluntary recall of tires made in Venezuela, even though Ford said it is pushing for it. However, Venezuelan dealers were asked Thursday to begin returning their inventories of mislabeled tires to the company, Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman Christine Karbowiak said.

"The inadvertent marking errors had no bearing on tire quality, performance or safety," Karbowiak said. "In addition, this mismarking situation is totally unrelated to the U.S. recall. . . . None of the mismarked tires were made in the United States or exported to the United States."

Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said the automaker began voluntarily replacing tires on about 40,000 Explorers and light trucks in Venezuela this spring after hearing reports of tread separations.

The extra nylon layer between the tires' steel belt and tread was requested to accommodate the hotter, more humid and demanding driving conditions in Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia, Ford said.

Tire company spokesman Ken Fields said Ford asked for the extra nylon layer in two types of Wilderness AT tires in January 1999. Firestone's Venezuela plant began producing the tires in June of that year. However, Fields said, Firestone "inadvertently began marking tires without a cap ply as tires that had a cap ply" prior to June.

Fields could not say for how long the tires were mismarked or how many mismarked tires were delivered.

Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee, said Bridgestone/Firestone officials told congressional investigators that nine models made and sold in Venezuela — not two — had been mislabeled.

The investigators also discovered that Firestone knew about the problem in Venezuela last year, Dingell said.

"I think that you can say at this time that there are significant problems at Firestone," he said.

In response to Dingell's account, Fields said: "I don't know the details of the timing on when the error was discovered, nor do I know the number of models affected."

Congress is holding hearings in Washington, D.C., next month to examine the recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires in the United States after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating reports of at least 62 deaths and more than 100 injuries in crashes reportedly connected to the 15-inch tires.

The tires were standard equipment on Ford trucks and sport utility vehicles, especially the Explorer, and were primarily made at the company's plant in Decatur, Ill.

Four congressional staff members spent nine hours at the company's suburban Nashville headquarters Monday. They departed without answering any questions.

Two Commerce Committee subcommittees will hold a joint hearing on Sept. 6 into the case, with Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., presiding. Ford, Firestone and safety experts will be called to testify, said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson, in Washington.

"We are getting the cooperation of the two companies, which is good. But they (congressional investigators) have basically confirmed what the news reports have told us — that the recall is going awfully spottily," Tauzin said Tuesday on CBS' "The Early Show."

He said the recall was being handled "terribly. . . . Three more people got killed just a weekend ago while the recall is going on. . . . It's been a terrible mess and frankly we've got to find out why."

Johnson said the hearings will investigate why the problem did not come to light sooner. He said the hearings could result in tougher requirements for companies to report when their products are defective.

"Did Firestone ignore the law or is the law not strict enough? Just as we want to get defective tires off the road, if we have defective laws we want to get them off the books."

Attorneys and consumer advocacy groups, who contend Bridgestone/Firestone knew about the tire problems years ago, are pressuring the company to broaden the recall in the United States.

Karbowiak said the company is continuing its review with NHTSA, but "at this time there is no evidence to broaden the U.S. recall."