The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Lawmakers ask if GM culture can change, and if 15 dismissals was enough for botched recall

  • Print

WASHINGTON - Lawmakers expressed disbelief Wednesday at General Motors' explanation for why it took 11 years to recall millions of small cars with defective ignition switches, and also confronted its chief executive with evidence that the company dragged its feet on a similar safety issue in different vehicles.

CEO Mary Barra and attorney Anton Valukas, who recently released a 315-page investigative report into the recall, endured skepticism and some lecturing at a House subcommittee hearing. One member described the actions of some employees outlined in the report as "insane."

Barra made her second appearance before the committee since GM recalled 2.6 million small cars in February, as families of some of the people who died in crashes in Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions looked on. She was again pressed on whether GM's commitment to safety has changed much.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., read a 2005 email from a GM employee whose 2006 Chevrolet Impala stalled after its ignition slipped out of position while she was driving it. "I'm thinking big recall," the employee wrote — but that recall never came until this week.

Upton asked Barra what GM would do with such an email if it was sent today, and Barra said GM would take "immediate action." She noted that GM has recently hired 40 more safety investors. But when she acknowledged that most of them were promoted from within GM, another member suggested GM get some "outside fresh blood."

The small-car recall is the subject of an ongoing Justice Department investigation, as well as probes by the House subcommittee and a panel in the Senate. It has also triggered a deeper look by federal regulators at ignition switches across the industry. On Wednesday, the government opened an investigation into reports of defective switches on 1.2 million Chrysler vehicles.

Lawmakers at the hearing were skeptical of many of the conclusions in Valukas's report, which was paid for by GM and released June 5. The report found that a lone engineer, Ray DeGiorgio, was able to approve the use of a switch that didn't meet company specifications. Years later, he ordered a change to that switch without anyone else at GM being aware.

Panel members said that defied credibility at a company with 210,000 employees. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., produced emails showing that other employees were informed of the change.

"I do think these documents point to the fact that the problem at GM is deeper than one rogue engineer," she said.

Valukas said the employees DeGiorgio notified were from the warranty area, and the change "meant nothing to them." But he conceded his law firm did not interview everyone included in the emails.

GM blames the switches for 13 deaths, but Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said there could be up to 100 deaths associated with the problem.

Photos of some of those victims lined the back wall of the packed hearing room, and about a dozen relatives of victims attended the hearing.

GM is establishing a compensation fund for those killed or injured because of the switches, and Barra said Wednesday there will be no cap on the amount the fund can pay out. Attorney Kenneth Feinberg is still determining who will qualify for compensation, she said. GM expects to start taking claims Aug. 1.

"We want to capture every single person who suffered injury or lost a loved one," Barra said.

But Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., said GM's lawyers are trying to use the company's 2009 bankruptcy to thwart lawsuits. He said GM wants to force victims from pre-bankruptcy crashes to accept its settlement offers or risk getting little compensation.

Barra didn't directly respond to Griffith's complaint.

The ignition switch in Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars could move out of the run position because of a heavy keychain or a bump of a knee. That causes the engine to stall, cuts off power-assisted steering and brakes and disables the air bags.

GM took years to make the connection between the switches and the air bag non-deployment. Valukas said a culture that prevented information sharing and discouraged people from taking action on problems was partly to blame.

Valukas said GM engineers also viewed the ignition switch malfunctions and engine stalling as a customer convenience issue rather than a safety problem, believing drivers could adequately control their cars without power steering and power brakes.

"That's just insane, isn't it?" DeGette asked Valukas.

"I don't want to use the word insane, but I'm deeply troubled by that," he replied.

DeGette said she has heard there is "more paranoia" within the company since Valukas's report was published because employees are worried they will lose their jobs.

Barra confirmed GM has dismissed 15 people who "didn't take action, or didn't move with urgency" to solve the ignition problems. But she said she is also encouraging employees to speak up about potential safety issues and is rewarding — not punishing — those who do. She said she has already gotten dozens of emails from employees reporting safety concerns.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said he thinks more than 15 should have been terminated, based on what he read in the Valukas report.

GM paid the maximum $35 million fine to the government in May for failing to disclose the problem sooner. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., said that's not enough of a deterrent for a company like GM, which earned $3.8 billion last year. A bill now in the Senate would lift the cap on government fines.

Tonko said the government's regulatory agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, needs more detailed data from automakers to help track safety problems.

NHTSA admitted during April testimony that it was contacting other automakers and suppliers to find out how their ignition switches interact with air bags. That could lead to even more ignition-related recalls. On Wednesday, the agency opened an investigation into switches on 1.2 million Chrysler vehicles after getting complaints that the cars can suddenly stall and the air bags won't inflate in a crash.

___

Durbin and Krisher reported from Detroit.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Stuart Murray announces musical RightsFest for CMHR opening weekend

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Winnipeg Free Press 090528 STAND UP...(Weather) One to oversee the pecking order, a pack of pelican's fishes the eddies under the Red River control structure at Lockport Thursday morning......
  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Local/Standup- BABY BISON. Fort Whyte Centre's newest mother gently nudges her 50 pound, female bull calf awake. Calf born yesterday. 25 now in herd. Four more calfs are expected over the next four weeks. It is the bison's second calf. June 7, 2002.

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What should the city do with the 102-year-old Arlington Street bridge?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google