These heads rolled at GM over switch fiasco – USA TODAY

Posted: Saturday, June 07, 2014

By refusing to identify the 15 people terminated for their involvement in fatally flawed ignition switches, General Motors has triggered a competition among the automotive and business media to identify the 15.

So far, the Detroit Free Press and trade publication Automotive News have identified eight.

The switches were used on 2003-2011 GM small cars, principally the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, and can inadvertently move out of the “run” position. That shuts off the engine and kills power assist to the steering and brakes and, most critical, often disables airbags.

The problem surfaced in 2001, during development of the 2003 Saturn Ion, GM documents show. But GM didn’t recall Ion, Cobalt and the others – 2.6 million worldwide — until February and March this year.

Documents show 54 crashes and 13 deaths linked to the defective switches.

The six listed by both Free Press reporter Nathan Bomey and Automotive News:

•Michael Robinson, regulatory vice president, the highest-ranking employee who was terminated. In a July 24, 2013 email sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he expressed surprise that the agency was displeased with GM’s regulatory compliance.

The email was made public by Congress, which has probed GM’s long delay in announcing a recall.

•Gay Kent, general director of vehicle safety and crashworthiness. Kent attended meetings where the faulty switches were discussed, according to the internal report done for GM by Anton Valukas, former U.S. attorney who performed a similar autopsy on the Lehman Brothers collapse.

•Carmen Benavides, who recently was reassigned after serving as director of product investigations, safety regulations and certification, field performance. The Valukas report said Benavides also sat in on switch-related meetings.

•Bill Kemp, a top GM recall lawyer involved with engineering and safety matters.

•Ray DeGiorgio, engineer who designed what he later called “the switch from hell.” He later approved a modified switch, but violated GM rules by not assigning it a new part number. That made it impossible to tell which cars had the older, more-dangerous switches and which had the new, presumably safer, switches.

•Gary Altman, chief development engineer for the small cars that used the faulty switches.

He experienced the switch problem in 2004 during final development of the 2005 Cobalt. An investigation into the problem was closed March 9, 2005, without action. Altman and Lori Queen, his boss then who retired from GM in 2009, each blamed the other for not taking action in 2005, the Valukas report says.

Two more named by Automotive News:

•Lawrence Buonomo, head of product litigation in GM’s legal department. He was chairman since March 2012 of a committee that reviewed lawsuits and had the authority to approve settlements up to $1.5 million.

Others in the legal department assumed the committee would be an early warning system that noticed trends that might require recalls. But he didn’t see his role or the committee’s that way, the Valukas report says.

•Jennifer Sevigny, lawyer who headed GM’s field product assessment group. She oversaw a group of engineers who investigate accidents and other matters for the legal staff, and serve as expert witnesses in court cases.

GM CEO Mary Barra said that she disciplined five others who were “one level removed” from those terminated. Those five “simply didn’t take action,” she said. She wouldn’t name the five.

The Valukas report was made public by GM Thursday. It was a catalog of “incompetence and neglect” within GM, Barra said.

The report is “is enormously painful” and documents “fundamental failure” by GM in dealing with safety issues, she said.

Barra previously appointed the automaker’s first global safety chief and told him to clean house on recalls and safety issues. As a result, GM has reported 34 recalls so far this year, totaling 13.87 million U.S. vehicles. The total grows to 15.91 million when cars and trucks sold in Canada and Mexico are included.

Despite the drumbeat of negative news about GM, sales of its new cars and trucks last month were up 13% from a year earlier, out-performing the U.S. new-vehicle market. Its average transaction price was $35,372, second only to Volkswagen among mainstream automakers, market watcher TrueCar reported. And its Chevrolet, Buick and GMC brands scored above-average in a TrueCar survey designed to measure how shoppers perceive brands. GM’s Cadillac was slightly below average among luxury cars in the survey.

GM stock closed Friday at $36.55, up 28 cents or 0.8%. Since Feb. 6, the day before GM announced the first of the ignition switch recalls, GM stock has risen $1.32, or 3.7%.


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