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Eric H. Holder Jr., the United States attorney general, talked in impassioned tones on Wednesday about Toyota’s behavior in hiding safety defects from the public, calling it “shameful” and a “blatant disregard” for the law. A $1.2 billion criminal penalty, the largest ever for a carmaker in the United States, was imposed.

Mr. Holder said the department’s four-year investigation of Toyota found that the company concealed information about defects from consumers and government officials, putting lives at risk because of faulty parts that caused sudden, unintended acceleration in several of its models.

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