New details expected in Senate hearing on GM recall – USA TODAY
General Motors brass again will face a Senate panel on Thursday to explain why the automaker never again will bury a problem as it did the defective ignition switches linked to 13 deaths.
This is the second Senate hearing, along with two in the House, and attention this time is likely to be focused not on GM CEO Mary Barra, but on the other witnesses, including Rodney O’Neal, CEO of Delphi Automotive, which made the bad switches. Also to appear Thursday are GM chief counsel Michael Millikin; Anton Valukas, the outside attorney who did GM’s investigation into the switch defect; and Kenneth Feinberg, the independent administrator of GM’s compensation program for switch crash victims.
O’Neal is expected to emphasize to the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance that Delphi supplied what GM ordered, and also that Delphi had nothing to do with related components, such as the ignition keys. Up to now, Delphi has made no public disclosures regarding the recall.
GM and Delphi documents gathered in investigations of the recall show that the two companies had contentious exchanges on the switches as early as 2001, when a GM engineer first found the switches could rotate too easily out of the “run” position. When that happens, it shuts off the engine, kills power steering and brake assist and, not understood by GM’s own engineers until years later, it can disable airbags.
In September of 2001, a GM memo says “this supplier has had one issue after another,” and “10 out of 12 switch failed to meet engineering requirements.” However, the memo is from Ray DeGiorgio, the engineer GM fired for his pivotal role in approving faulty switches, keeping them in production and trying to change to a better design without telling anybody.
At a June 18 House subcommittee hearing, GM CEO Mary Barra said, “I, personally, don’t find Mr. DeGiorgio credible.”
In her prepared remarks for the latest Senate hearing, Barra acknowledges that GM has recalled millions of cars and trucks for other issues since the February ignition switch recalls. But she says that’s because she ordered a house-cleaning to resolve any pending safety issues immediately. GM has recalled 24 million vehicles in the U.S. since the first switch recall.
GM’s top lawyer, who has not commented previously, no doubt will feel on the hot seat, too.
“There’s a reason Michael Millikin will be testifying in addition to Mary Barra — and that’s because Claire will be posing some tough questions that haven’t yet been answered about the role GM’s legal department played in delaying this recall,” said Andy Newbold, deputy press secretary for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
In his prepared statement, Millikin says he “first learned about the Cobalt ignition switch defect during the first week of February of this year. I immediately took action. Had I learned about it earlier, I would have taken action earlier.
He says that he now requires that any potential legal settlements by GM involving crash fatalities or serious injuries must be discussed with him. Previously, settlements up to certain financial limits could be cleared by lower-level lawyers.
“We had lawyers at GM who didn’t do their jobs; didn’t do what was expected of them. Those lawyers are no longer with the company,” the written statement says. Fifteen lawyers and engineers were axed over the defective switches.
The lawyers worked for Millikin, but GM has said that he was not made aware of what they knew about the faulty switches. Millikin says in his remarks, “I am ultimately responsible for the legal affairs of the company. I am here today to answer these questions.”
Contributing: Nathan Bomey, Detroit Free Press