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Prosecutors would need evidence of fraud to make a federal case against Kia, Hyundai

Posted: 6:39 PM, Dec 13, 2018
Updated: 2018-12-14 09:58:13Z
Kia fire victims demand action at hearing

TAMPA, Fla. — The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York City has launched an investigation into whether carmakers handled recalls properly, according to news reports.

Prosecutors aren’t commenting, but Brian Albritton, a former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida who does not have any inside knowledge of the investigation, said in these types of cases, the feds will likely investigate whether carmakers made any untruthful statements government regulators.

“They are looking for people acting deceptively, fraudulently, criminally,” said Albritton, who is now a defense attorney in Tampa. “For fraud, it’s got to be a deception. You either have omitted something that you had a duty to say or you have made a false statement.”

But Albritton told I-Team Investigator Jackie Callaway that it’s unclear whether the car companies will face indictments or fines.

“It does not take much to open an investigation,” said Albritton, adding, “Not all investigations end up in criminal charges.”

Spokesman for both Kia and Hyundai refused to comment on any possible federal investigations.

But this isn’t the first time the federal prosecutors have investigated a car company.

Last year, German carmaker Volkswagen pleaded guilty to criminal charges that it deceived U.S. regulators, including the Environmental Protection Agency, by installing devices in its diesel vehicles that were designed to cheat on emission tests. As part of its plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Volkswagen paid a $2.8 billion criminal penalty.

Following hundreds of reports of Kia and Hyundai vehicles spontaneously catching fire, Congress called for a hearing. But that hearing – scheduled for last month – was canceled after the CEOs for Kia and Hyundai refused to show up.

RELATED: KIA, Hyundai CEOs refuse to attend Senate hearing to explain cause of car fires

Kia and Hyundai have been unable to say what is causing so many of these fires, but the I-Team uncovered what might be sparking them.

Last month, auto experts told the I-Team that work done during recent engine recall replacements may have sparked the fires in some of the hundreds of Kia and Hyundai vehicles spontaneously bursting into flames.

Mechanics and a fire investigator told I-Team Investigator Jackie Callaway that they suspect fuel pump leaks are igniting some of these fires.

Two separate Kia owners – one in North Carolina and the other in Louisiana – shared videos with ABC Action News that showed spewing fuel pumps just weeks after their Kia engines were replaced.

“You have the fuel and you have an ignition source and under the right conditions the car can catch on fire,” Fire investigator Rich Meier told the I-Team last month.

Meier also recently found another potential cause of these fires. He recently examined a 2015 Kia Soul that owner Kathy Koroschetz says nearly set her home – just south of Sarasota – on fire.

Meier suspects wiring in the fan motor sparked the fire in Koroschetz's car – this is the second time in six months he has made that finding on a Kia.

Drivers in 43 states have reported 255 Kia and Hyundai fires, according to The Center for Auto Safety.

Among them is Linda Clapp, whose 2013 Kia Sorento burst into flames while she was driving just outside of Canton, Ohio. Clapp said she and her 12-year-old daughter escaped with seconds to spare.

“How could a fire be that intense that fast?,” Clapp asked I-Team Investigator Jackie Callaway.

The I-Team has turned over Meier’s fire investigation findings to Kia. A corporate spokesperson said the company would look into both Koroschetz's and Clapp’s fires, but so far, the owners say Kia has yet to inspect their damaged vehicles.

If you have a story you’d like Jackie Callaway with the I-Team to investigate, contact her at jcallaway@abcactionnews.com.