WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee said late Monday it has launched an investigation into General Motors' recall of ignition switches linked to at least 13 deaths.
As part of the probe, an Energy and Commerce subcommittee will hold hearings that are expected to include officials from GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, although a date has not been set for the hearing, Charlotte Baker, a committee spokeswoman, told The New York Times.
"Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner? If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened, and then determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended," U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the committee, said in a statement Monday.
In the Senate, Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, has asked for a subcommittee hearing on the matter from Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said a person familiar with the matter who didn’t want to be identified because the request isn’t public. The Detroit News reported the request earlier.
GM said earlier Monday it has hired Jenner & Block Chairman Anton Valukas, who served as a U.S. Justice Department-appointed examiner of the downfall of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., to help lead an internal probe of the handling of the ignition-switch recall.
NHTSA officials have also expanded a probe of the recall.
Upton oversaw a subcommittee in 2000 that investigated the rollovers of Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires, a problem that followed years of complaints and was eventually linked to 271 deaths.
In response, Congress passed the Tread Act, sponsored by Upton, that requires automakers to report complaints of defects in a timely matter to NHTSA and make it easier to identify and track automotive safety defects.
Upton, in calling for hearings, said he is particularly interested in how an automaker and U.S. safety regulators, despite the added oversight, once again failed to recognize safety defects and trends.
“Here we are over a decade later, faced with accidents and tragedies, and significant questions need to be answered,” Upton said in a statement. “Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner? Americans deserve to have the peace of mind that they are safe behind the wheel."
GM said it is already cooperating with NHTSA and planned to cooperate with the House committee's investigation, as well.
"We welcome the opportunity to help both parties have a full understanding of the facts," GM said in a statement late Monday.
GM's internal investigation of the flaw that prompted the recall of 1.6 million vehicles is being conducted jointly by a team led by Valukas and GM’s general counsel, Michael Millikin, the automaker said in a statement. Attorneys from the law firm King & Spalding are also part of the team conducting the investigation, GM said.
The internal company probe is running parallel to a query from NHTSA on what steps the company took to investigate engineering concerns and consumer complaints dating from 2004.
GM has until April 3 to answer specific questions in a 27-page order the safety agency issued March 4.
GM last month said heavy key rings or jarring can cause ignition switches on some Chevrolet, Pontiac and Saturn vehicles to slip out of position, cutting off power and deactivating air bags. GM has now linked the defect to at least 23 crashes, including the 13 deaths.
The auto-safety regulator could fine GM as much as $35 million, which would be the most ever by the U.S., if it finds the automaker didn’t pursue a recall when it knew the cars were defective. The agency can also seek criminal charges.
Reputation at stake
GM CEO Mary Barra said March 4 she would lead senior executives monitoring progress on the recall, which includes Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 small cars. The company’s reputation may be driven by how it responds, she said.
GM “has acted without hesitation” to address the recall in the past few weeks, Barra said in a note on a Web site last week for employees. “We have much more work ahead of us.”
The initial recall on Feb. 13, limited to 778,562 Cobalts and G5s, was widened less than two weeks later to include more than 800,000 additional vehicles. Those vehicles include 2003-2007 Saturn Ions, 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHRs, the 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice and the 2006-2007 Saturn Sky. Other models affected are the 2005-06 Pontiac Pursuit sold in Canada and the 2007 Opel GT sold in Europe.
GM North America President Alan Batey said in a Feb. 25 statement expanding the recall to the Saturn Ions and other models that the company’s “process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been.” The automaker is preparing a second timeline related to the Feb. 25 recall expansion.
Bloomberg, David Phillips and Mike Colias contributed to this report.