WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday she is looking into whether Ford or Bridgestone/Firestone executives broke any criminal or civil laws with their handling of complaints over tires now linked to scores of deaths.
At the same time, two senators introduced bills to force companies to alert authorities to product safety concerns.
The action came a day after a pair of congressional hearings during which lawmakers pilloried Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. for failing to do more to alert Americans to problems with certain Firestone tires that can suddenly lose their tread or suffer blowouts.
At the request of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Reno said the Justice Department is studying whether any criminal or civil laws apply to the case.
''We are looking to what, if any, Justice Department action is warranted,'' Reno said.
A senior Justice official, speaking on a condition on anonymity, said that criminal action was considered unlikely and that a civil case would be pursued only if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration referred a case to the department. It has not done so.
Although there were lawsuits, insurance claims and reports of problems with certain Firestone tires around the world during the last decade, officials from NHTSA, Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford have said they did not realize they were dealing with a serious problem until this year.
Leahy introduced a bill that would require U.S. tire and automakers to notify federal regulators within two days of an overseas recall.
''Timely notice about recalls should not be optional when consumer safety is at stake,'' Leahy said.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., introduced legislation to establish criminal penalties for executives who intentionally withhold information on defective products that kill or injure consumers.
''When there are simply monetary awards, they cost the company and they cost the shareholders, but it doesn't do anything to the individuals who make these decisions,'' Specter said from the Senate floor.
Companies now only are subject to state criminal charges or civil lawsuits. Specter's bill would establish federal charges punishable by up to 15 years in prison for defects that lead to death and five years for injuries.
Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires last month, many of which are original equipment on light trucks and sport utility vehicles made by Ford. NHTSA has warned that an additional 1.4 million Firestone tires also are dangerous and should be replaced. Bridgestone/Firestone disputes that claim.
The agency says 88 U.S. deaths may be linked to the tires. The number is expected to go higher.
Venezuela's consumer protection agency has called for criminal charges against Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone officials for 46 deaths in that country.
In Colombia, Ford announced Thursday it was recalling Firestone tires on nearly 8,000 Explorers and 450 F-150 pickup trucks sold there. It was not immediately clear whether there had been any accidents linked to faulty tires in that country.
Ford has come under fire for beginning a Firestone tire recall in 16 foreign countries more than a year before the U.S. recall started. No law required Ford to notify U.S. authorities, and the company did not, believing the problems were related to driving conditions unique to those countries.
In his congressional testimony Wednesday, Ford CEO Jacques Nasser blamed the problem on defective Firestone tires but promised Ford would now notify U.S. officials when it makes any safety changes overseas.
''Our investigation is ongoing and I suspect it will lead to legislation as well as recommendations for major changes at NHTSA,'' said Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who chaired the House hearing.
NHTSA can open an investigation that could lead to a recall whenever it receives complaints about an automobile-related problem, but often relies on the manufacturers to report defects.
NHTSA Administrator Sue Bailey told lawmakers she was considering changes to her agency's tire-testing standards and requirements for companies to report on potentially defective products.
The Clinton administration wants Congress to allow the NHTSA to collect greater fines from companies that withhold information. The current limit is $925,000; the administration wants it increased to at least $4 million.
On the Net:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov
Ford Motor Co.: http://www.ford.com