GM's Barra to testify before U.S. House committee April 1 on recall

Upton: The testimony of Barra and Friedman "is critical to understanding what the company and NHTSA knew about the safety problems, when they knew it, and what was done about it."
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WASHINGTON -- General Motors CEO Mary Barra will testify April 1 on Capitol Hill about the company's handling of its unfolding recall crisis, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee said Thursday.

The hearing will take place about five weeks after GM recalled 1.6 million older cars to replace defective ignition switches that could shut off the engine if nudged out of position. Under the bright lights of the committee room, Barra will have to answer questions about why it took more than a decade to order the repair. Her answers likely will have implications for GM's public image.

David Friedman, the acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will testify.

"Their testimony is critical to understanding what the company and NHTSA knew about the safety problems, when they knew it, and what was done about it,” Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said Thursday evening in a joint statement with Rep. Tim Murphy, the chairman of the oversight subcommittee that will hold the hearing.

“The problems originated long before Barra and Friedman took the helms of their respective organizations, but their actions and input now, as our investigation proceeds, will be essential to getting answers about what went wrong. We want to know if this tragedy could have been prevented and what can be done to ensure the loss of life due to safety failures like this don’t happen again.”

Critics have questioned why NHTSA failed to open an investigation into the defect. GM has linked the defect to 31 crashes in which airbags failed to deploy and 12 front-seat passengers died.

"I'm just really looking forward to the opportunity to talk before Congress about this important issue," Friedman told reporters after a Capitol Hill speech today. "We're focused on making sure the recall moves forward properly, and we're going to be prepared and ready and happy to share all the information we can with Congress."

A GM spokesman said Barra “welcomes the opportunity to participate in the hearing as part of GM's effort to cooperate with Congress and other authorities.”

Congressional briefings

In the past two weeks, aides to the Energy and Commerce Committee have been briefed by GM and NHTSA on their responses to the ignition switch defect. The committee also sent GM and NHTSA a request for reams of documents about their handling of the problem, including all correspondence between them.

The deadline is Tuesday. The committee expects both GM and NHTSA to cooperate, a committee aide said Thursday, though the committee does not expect to have all of its questions answered because the list of questions was extensive.

"I look forward to this hearing so we can find out from GM and NHTSA how this happened and why these dangerous vehicles were not fixed in a timely fashion,” Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said in a joint statement.

Waxman is the ranking Democrat on the committee; DeGette is the ranking Democrat on its oversight and investigations panel.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has also announced that she will schedule a hearing in a U.S. Senate subcommittee that she chairs; that hearing has not yet been scheduled.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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