In the days leading up to its massive recall in January, Toyota executives debated when they should inform the public about safety problems with accelerator pedals, prompting one executive to urge the company to 'come clean,' according to documents obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday.

Irv Miller, Toyota's then-group vice president for environment and public affairs, warned his colleagues in an e-mail on Jan. 16, 2010: 'We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet. The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean.'

Five days later, Toyota announced it would recall 2.3 million vehicles to address sticking pedals on popular vehicles such as the Camry and Corolla.

As Toyota deals with a spate of recalls, the e-mail reveals serious concerns within the Japanese company's public relations leadership that it wasn't dealing with the safety problems squarely and could be inflicting damage to its long-standing reputation for safety and quality. Months earlier, in September 2009, the automaker had announced a recall of more than 4 million vehicles to replace gas pedals that could get stuck in floor mats and cause sudden acceleration.

Toyota has recalled more than 6 million vehicles in the U.S. and a total of more than 8 million worldwide because of acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius hybrid.

'We better just hope that they can get NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to work with us in coming (up) with a workable solution that does not put us out of business,' Miller wrote in the Jan. 16 e-mail. He noted that Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, and Yoshi Inaba, president of Toyota Motor North America, were traveling to Washington to meet with federal regulators.

In a memo earlier that day, Katsuhiko Koganei, executive coordinator for corporate communications at Toyota Motor Sales USA, suggested the company should not discuss mechanical failures in accelerator pedals.

In an e-mail to Mike Michels, vice president of external communications, which was copied to other Toyota officials, Koganei wrote, 'Now I talked with you on the phone, we should not mention about the mechanical failures of acc. pedal because we have not clarified the real cause of the sticking acc pedal formally, and the remedy for the matter has not been confirmed.'

Koganei added that Toyota executives were concerned that news of the mechanical failures 'might raise another uneasiness of customers.'

Koganei's e-mail prompted a strongly worded response from Miller. 'Kogi, I hate to break this to you but we have a tendency for mechanical failure in accelerator pedals of a certain manufacturer on certain models,' Miller wrote, adding his concerns about customer safety. The e-mail's subject line said it was about a draft statement to respond to an ABC News story.