McCaskill: GM engineer lied over deadly ignition switch – USA TODAY

Posted: Wednesday, April 02, 2014

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel drilled into General Motors CEO Mary Barra because she hasn’t fired anybody yet for concealing a redesign of a faulty ignition switch that’s now linked by GM to 13 deaths in 32 crashes in the U.S. and Canada.

Senators pummeled her with accusations that there was an illegal cover-up at GM, that she represents no real change in attitude at the automaker and that, in the words of a frustrated Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), “You don’t know anything about anything.”

It was Barra’s second day of rough handling by Congress. Tuesday she was grilled by House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee about the same issue – why it took GM so long to recall cars with faulty ignition switches.

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GM documents first note the switch fault in 2001, then again in 2003 and 2004. A redesign was approved in 2006, but the switch – contrary to GM policy and possibly violating federal law – didn’t get a new part number, nor was there a recall then of cars with the troublesome switch.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-Mo.) zeroed in on a court deposition in April 2013 in a case involving a Georgia woman killed in a Chevrolet Cobalt in 2009. In that deposition, GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio told a lawyer he, as switch engineer for the car, had never signed off on changes to the ignition.

But GM documents showed DeGiorgio had himself approved the change in April 2006, McCaskill said.

“I don’t see this as anything but criminal,” emphasized Sen. Kelly Ayotte, (R-N.H.). who is a former prosecutor.

Lawmakers think the engineer who approved the change without a new part number — making it hard to tell which cars have the presumably safer switch — should have been fired because “he lied” about his involvement, declared Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chair of the Senate Consumer Protection subcommittee. She cited a civil lawsuit deposition from last year, in a now-settled suit against GM.

In the House session Tuesday session, she was accused of speaking “gobbledygook” and being remiss for not getting rid of the engineer.

She has insisted throughout that it’s premature to take action until what she called a “no holds barred” internal GM probe, lead by former U.S. Attorney General Anton Valukas, is complete.

GM has recalled, in three steps stretching from early February to late March, 2.6 million 2003 – 2011 small cars worldwide to replace their ignition switches. Faulty switches can unexpectedly move out of the “run” position while the vehicles are in motion, shutting off the engine, killing the power assist to steering and brakes, and, GM says, preventing front airbags from inflating in front crashes.

Testifying before the same Senate subcommittee minutes after Barra, chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said GM airbags shouldn’t have failed to deploy even when the ignition switches failed.”To be honest, that doesn’t make sense to me,” NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman told the Senate panel.

“Power loss in a vehicle is not uncommon. There are capacitors built into those airbag systems, to ensure that they” deploy even when the ignition switch cuts power.

Capacitors store electricity for short periods.

He told Senators that “it might not be that the power wasn’t on, but that the act of moving from run to accessory” fouled up the computer logic that decides when to deploy the bags.

GM is required to furnish, by Thursday, answers to 107 questions from NHTSA that Friedman hopes will shed more light on how the airbags operate.

McCaskill found it unbelievable that an airbag system wouldn’t have backup power.

Barra did not offer comments after the Wednesday morning grilling, though she had done so after the House hearing Tuesday.

But early in the afternoon, GM circulated this statement attributed to her: “The issues raised in the hearing were tough but fair. I appreciate the intense interest by the senators to fully understand what happened and why.

“I am going to accomplish exactly that, and we will keep Congress informed. Meanwhile, we will continue doing all we can to repair our customers’ vehicles and rebuild their trust in GM.”

GM also hired settlement expert Kenneth Feinberg, who arranged settlements in the 9/11 attacks, BP’s oil spill and the Boston Marathon bombings. Barra said GM hasn’t met with Feinberg yet, but soon will.

She hasn’t said directly, but it’s expected he is on board to work out settlements with those whose loved ones died in crashes involving the recalled cars.

The Senate panel extracted a pledge that GM has made it clear that no documents relating to the faulty ignition switches are to be molested.

Barra: “Everybody’s been put on ‘litigation notice’,” meaning they are forbidden from modifying, discarding or destroying any documents relating to switches.

And Senators got Barra to promise to discipline or fire people involved in what senators said was a cover-up of the switch flaw. “I commit to you I will make change, both people and process,” Barra said later in the hearing.

She agreed to return to Capitol Hill once the Valukas internal investigation is done, and to disclose to congress everything that is safety-related.

Barra did not offer comments after the Wednesday morning grilling, though she had done so after the House hearing Tuesday. But early in the afternoon, GM circulated this statement attributed to her: “The issues raised in the hearing were tough but fair. I appreciate the intense interest by the senators to fully understand what happened and why.

“I am going to accomplish exactly that, and we will keep Congress informed. Meanwhile, we will continue doing all we can to repair our customers’ vehicles and rebuild their trust in GM.”

As she had Tuesday before the House subcommittee, Barra largely ducked specific answers, saying she is awaiting the results of the Valukas internal investigation about why the company did not react earlier than this year to red flags involving faulty ignitions.

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She repeated that the culture of the company has changed post-bankruptcy to be more consumer oriented, saying cost was more central at times before the 2009 bankruptcy reorganization and “that (earlier) culture wasn’t always so welcoming of bad news.” GM has recalled 7 million vehicles worldwide so far this year.

Boxer was unmoved: “I really hate to say this, but if this is the new GM leadership, I find it lacking….The culture you are representing here today is the culture of the status quo.”

Barra said GM would do “the right thing” but has refused to promise outright to waive its liability protection resulting from the 2009 bankruptcy reorganization, or set up a victims fund.

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