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Toyota’s $1.2 billion fine a warning for GM

The connection was hard to miss.

While Attorney General Eric Holder was announcing a record $1.2 billion penalty on Toyota for misleading the public and regulators about issues involving unintended acceleration in its vehicles, questions were raised about another automaker potentially in the cross hairs of the Justice Department: General Motors.

Although Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, wouldn't comment on the GM investigation, he did issue a clear warning to all automakers about avoiding the same mistakes made by Toyota.

"In a misguided and ill-advised effort at crisis management, Toyota made the fateful decision to mislead the public to protect its brand," Bharara said. "Rather than come clean, the company covered up and misled again and again and again."

(Read more: This opens Pandora's Box for GM: Nardelli)

Will we be hearing similar comments about General Motors for the way it's handled the ignition switch recall five years from now?

There's no way of knowing.

Still, what we know so far about the ignition switch recall—which has been blamed for 31 accidents and 12 deaths, and dates to 2004—raises the same type of questions we heard about Toyota in 2009.

If there was a pattern of complaints and accidents over the course of years, why didn't the company issue a recall sooner?

Was General Motors being straight with the public all along?

Daniel Howes, business columnist and associate business editor for The Detroit News, said the similarities between GM and Toyota are noteworthy.

"What happened with Toyota speaks to the attitude of government regulators and lawmakers when they're looking into corporations who appear to have dropped the ball," he said.

Still, he acknowledged the GM recall situation is different than what Toyota went through, because of clamoring from the public and lawmakers for an explanation of what happened.

"It's only going to get more intense," he said.

(Read more: GM CEO on recall: 'Clearly this took too long')

GM CEO Mary Barra said she has yet to talk with the U.S. Attorney's office, but she wants the same questions answered. She's hired former U.S. Attorney Tony Valukas to conduct an internal review of the company.

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