Lawmakers press GM, ask why it took 11 years to recall millions of cars

By Tom Krisher

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, June 18 2014 4:32 p.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, June 18 2014 4:32 p.m. MDT

General Motors CEO Mary Barra listens while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing examining the facts and circumstances that contributed to General Motors’ failure to identify a safety defect in certain ignition switches and initiate a recall in a timely manner.

Cliff Owen, Associated Press

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 referred to the actions of some employees described in the report as "insane."

The GM recall has triggered a deeper look at ignition switches across the auto industry. On Wednesday, the government opened an investigation into reports of defective switches in 1.2 million Chrysler vehicles.

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 e-mail from a GM employee who had a 2006 Chevrolet Impala stall on her 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 e-mail if it was sent today, and Barra said GM would take "immediate action." GM has issued 44 recalls covering nearly 18 million cars in the U.S. this year.

Barra 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."

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 e-mails 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 notified by DeGiorgio 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.

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