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Senators accuse GM of illegally hiding ignition-switch flaw

During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), fiercely questioned General Motors CEO Mary Barra about how the company decided against issuing a recall after they were made aware of a problem with ignition switches in some vehicles. (The Associated Press)

Lawmakers on Wednesday bluntly accused General Motors of illegally hiding evidence of a deadly ignition-switch flaw for much of the past decade, as GM chief executive Mary T. Barra endured a second day of combative hearings on Capitol Hill.

After two hours of aggressive questioning Tuesday in the House, Barra faced even more hostile inquisitors Wednesday in the Senate, who zeroed in on the automaker’s 2006 decision to redesign the defective switch without changing the part number or initiating a recall.

“The only reason that occurs is either gross incompetence or an absolute coverup,” said Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer protection panel.

Barra struggled, as she did Tuesday, to deflect the barbed queries, promising lawmakers more answers when an internal GM investigation concludes this spring. Senate investigators vowed to summon Barra and other GM officials back to Washington when the probe is finished. In the meantime, they said, they would look at drafting legislation to require automakers to disclose more information about safety issues so that federal regulators can spot defects more quickly.

In the House, lawmakers focused Wednesday on the role of federal officials who served on GM’s board after the company’s 2009 bankruptcy and taxpayer bailout, when the nation’s largest automaker was under the control of the federal government.

Prior to a House committee hearing with the chief executive of General Motors, lawmakers and families of victims killed in crashes involving GM cars held a news conference. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

“This investigation is open and ongoing, and we are not done by a long shot,” said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s investigations panel.

The defective ignition switch has been blamed for at least 13 deaths in crashes involving the Chevrolet Cobalt and five other small-car models. When jostled, the switches can shift to “accessory” mode, shutting down the engine and disabling power steering, power brakes and passenger airbags.

GM first caught wind of the problem in 2001, but waited until this year to recall 2.6 million affected vehicles. On Wednesday, senators pressed Barra about the 2006 decision to replace the flawed switch. In documents submitted to congressional investigators, GM revealed that an engineer named Ray DeGiorgio signed off on the part change that April.

McCaskill noted, however, that DeGiorgio repeatedly denied knowing about the change when he was deposed last year in a lawsuit filed on behalf of a 29-year-old Georgia woman killed in a Chevrolet Cobalt crash in 2010.

“He lied,” McCaskill said of DeGiorgio.

Barra, a 33-year GM employee who took over as chief executive in mid-January, explained that “there were silos” at the company that hindered the flow of information. She added that she, too, wants to know who is responsible for swapping out the ignition part and for other questionable decisions, including to install the part even though the supplier failed to meet all of GM’s technical specifications.

Barra called the 2006 swap “unacceptable,” a term that caused Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to bristle.

A history of GM’s ignition problems

“This to me is not a matter of acceptability. This is criminal deception,” Ayotte said. “Someone made the decision, and it was approved by GM. We should get to the bottom of that.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former state attorney general and federal prosecutor, said GM could face criminal liability for the move. Just last month, Toyota was fined $1.2 billion for what Justice Department officials called deceptive behavior when dealing with unintended acceleration problems in many of its models.

GM officials and federal regulators say the undocumented introduction of the redesigned part hid the problem and complicated efforts by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to identify the flaw and get defective cars off the road.

NHTSA also has come under fire from lawmakers. Acting NHTSA administrator David Friedman said Wednesday the agency suspects that GM did not provide information about the ignition problem in a timely manner, which is a violation of federal law.

Some lawmakers said they were upset that the agency, which opened investigations into three separate crashes related to ignition switches over the years, failed to take action.

“I think NHTSA has been sloppy in handling this,” Murphy said in an interview.

Lawmakers reserved their sharpest criticism for GM and Barra. In her testimony, Barra repeatedly drew a distinction between “today’s GM,” which she said is focused on safety, and the “old GM,” which she said was often preoccupied with cost.

Some lawmakers said they saw little difference between the two.

“I am very disappointed, really, as a woman to woman,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Barra. “I am very disappointed because the culture you are representing here today is the culture of the status quo.”

Michael A. Fletcher was a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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