House investigators released a trove of documents Friday revealing what one key lawmaker called “failures within the system” that resulted in General Motors taking more than a decade to order a recall to repair a deadly ignition-switch defect.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the documents have given investigators a better sense of what GM was doing as it debated the ignition-switch problem, which the company has linked to 13 deaths.
“Our task now is figuring out why there was a breakdown to help prevent similar failures in the future,” he said. “There is still much left to examine and we will continue to follow the facts.”
The House investigators’ release of some of the 250,000 pages of documents include GM memos, e-mails and other correspondence concerning the discussion within the company about the ignition-switch flaw that triggered recalls of 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts and other GM small cars this year. The flaw caused cars to inadvertently turn off, stiffening power brakes and power steering, and disabling air bags.
The documents included a copy of an October 2011 e-mail sent to GM chief executive Mary T. Barra, who at the time was GM’s chief of product development.
The e-mail discussed problems in Cobalts and Pontiac G5s that led to a recall for power-steering issues in 2010 that are distinct from the ignition-switch problem. “During the initial Cobalt case, the Ion data did not justify being included,” said the e-mail to Barra. “This situation has been evolving. We will meet and understand the latest data.”
Since the ignition-switch recalls began, Barra has said that she did not get wind of the deadly problem until last December and that she did not understand its full dimensions until late January, just weeks after she took over as CEO. She reiterated that position in testimony before lawmakers in both the House and Senate last week.
“The email to Mary Barra dated October 3, 2011 references a Saturn Ion steering issue — an issue completely separate from the ignition-related recalls,” GM said in a statement. “The email in no way contradicts Ms. Barra’s previous statements or testimony.”
GM’s slow recall is being investigated by the House and Senate and federal auto safety regulators, as well as by federal prosecutors, who are examining the possibility of criminal charges against the company. Congressional investigators are also looking into why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not uncover the problem, despite fielding numerous complaints and launching several queries.
“Documents show individuals at GM allowed vehicles with safety concerns to remain on the road for almost a decade, resulting in at least 13 fatalities,” said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), chairman of the House subcommittee leading the probe of GM and federal regulators. “We will continue our investigation into what went wrong because it’s the only way public trust can be restored for both GM and for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.”