Feds fine GM for too little data too late – USA TODAY
Federal safety officials said in a letter to General Motors on Tuesday that the company still hasn’t provided enough answers about its ignition switch recall and will be fined $7,000 a day, retroactive to the April 3 deadline GM missed.
In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that it has the authority to refer the case to the Justice Department as early as Wednesday GM’s “failure to fully respond” to the agency’s 107 questions about events leading to the recall.
Justice could sue GM to get all of NHTSA’s questions answered as fast as possible. That would be separate from the department’s ongoing criminal investigation into GM’s handling of the recall.
“It is a very stern letter. NHTSA intends to deal very strictly with GM,” said Carl Tobias, law professor at the University of Richmond.
GM protested the sharp wording from the federal agency, saying that the company has “worked tirelessly from the start” and has “fully cooperated with the agency to help it have a full understanding of the facts.”
The car company also said that NHTSA had agreed “in several instances” to allow GM “a rolling production schedule of documents past the April 3rd deadline.”
The fine is the maximum that NHTSA can impose and it signals that NHTSA has lost patience and also that the agency — itself under fire by Congress for not discovering the faulty switches sooner — wants to be seen as tough on GM.
GM, in three steps in February and March, recalled 2.53 million 2003-2011 U.S. small cars, mainly Chevrolet Cobalt and HHR and Saturn Ion. Their ignition switches can slip out of “run,” shutting off the engine and, thus, power assist to the steering and brakes, and disabling the airbags. GM says it knows of 31 crashes and 12 deaths in the U.S. linked to the fault, and one fatal crash in Canada.
GM documents show it first knew of a problem with the switches in 2001. They also show the switch was redesigned in 2006, but wasn’t assigned a new part number and the existence of a new switch wasn’t widely known within GM.
NHTSA ordered GM to answer the 107 questions to determine if the automaker complied with requirements for timely reporting of a safety defect. GM swamped NHTSA with some 21,000 documents, but they aren’t necessarily the right ones, the federal agency said.
In Tuesday’s letter, NHTSA said the car company “did not respond to over a third of the (107) requests.”
GM had alerted NHTSA on April 4 that it couldn’t meet the deadline because some answers only will come to light as part of an internal GM investigation being conducted, at GM’s behest, by former U.S. Attorney General Anton Valukas.
NHTSA’s letter said that, “Mr. Valukas’ investigation is irrelevant to GM’s legal obligation to timely respond.”
And while GM had alerted NHTSA that it needed extra time to “consult with engineers” about the “technical engineering questions,” the federal agency said that many of the queries GM didn’t answer “are not ‘technical engineering questions’ at all.”
The automaker said in a statement, “GM has produced nearly 21,000 documents totaling over 271,000 pages through a production process that spans a decade and over 5 million documents from 75 individual custodians and additional sources. Even NHTSA recognizes the breadth of its inquiry…
“We believe that NHTSA shares our desire to provide accurate and substantive responses. We will continue to provide responses and facts as soon as they become available and hope to go about this in a constructive manner. We will do so with a goal of being accurate as well as timely.”