DETROIT -- Michael Millikin, General Motors' top lawyer, was conspicuous in his silence this month during a U.S. Senate panel grilling of CEO Mary Barra over the company's ignition-switch recall.
Millikin sat stone-faced, lips pursed, as several senators wondered aloud why his legal team wouldn't have known about problems long before this year's recall of 2.6 million cars for a faulty ignition switch that has been linked to 13 deaths. Barra declined to confer with her general counsel even when invited to do so by the panel's chairman.
But behind the scenes, Millikin, a 65-year-old former federal narcotics prosecutor, is anything but a passive bystander. Few GM insiders will play a more central role in the company's response to the biggest crisis since its government-led bankruptcy five years ago.
Millikin is co-leading the internal investigation into how GM let the defect linger for a decade. He's steering GM's response to at least four federal probes, including one by the Justice Department. He'll likely help determine whose heads might roll as a result of the internal review, people familiar with the company's procedures say. And he'll have a big say in whether GM establishes a fund to compensate victims of prebankruptcy crashes.
'Tell me now'
The recall poses a big late-career test for Millikin, a Battle Creek, Mich., native who joined GM in 1977 after two years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit going after drug kingpins. He was named chief counsel five days after GM's emergence from bankruptcy in July 2009.
GM declined to make Millikin available for an interview.
People who have worked with him describe Millikin as a no-nonsense lawyer and manager who strikes an imposing presence around GM headquarters. He demands an unusually fine level of detail from those who report directly to him, sources say.
"He's extremely hands-on," says one former attorney who worked with Millikin for many years. "Mike's management style is, 'Tell me now. I need to know.'"
Another former colleague describes Millikin as "street smart" and "intense."
"He has a way of making very intelligent people stammer," the former colleague says. "You realize that, when you're talking to him, he's listening, but he's also reading for what you're not saying."
He also has a reputation as a by-the-book operator and a hawk on ethical matters. A few years ago, as some GM executives awaited a flight to China, they were handed gift bags from the airline that included a pair of Bose headphones, says a person who was there. A few of the execs glanced at Millikin to check whether their general counsel deemed accepting the schwag a conflict of interest. (He didn't.)
John Quinn, a partner at business litigation firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan who has worked with Millikin on GM cases for 20 years, says he has seen Millikin be "very critical of people who get out of line" within GM.
"He's not starry-eyed about GM. He knows there can be bad apples, and he doesn't tolerate it," Quinn says.
Millikin applied that ethos in the mid-1990s to what would become a defining case in his career: He was the architect of the company's high-profile legal pursuit of former GM purchasing boss J. Ignacio Lopez, who stole planning documents, purchase contracts and other trade secrets from GM when he left the company in 1993 for Volkswagen.
Then head of GM's in-house litigation practice, Millikin campaigned for the company to go after Lopez while suing VW in the process, Quinn says.
"Not everyone at GM was in favor of it, but Mike advocated for it," Quinn says. "From that point, he remained heavily involved in the nitty-gritty of shaping the case, the discovery and the ultimate negotiation and settlement."
The companies eventually settled in January 1997, with VW agreeing to pay GM $100 million in damages, plus agreeing to buy $1 billion in components from GM over seven years.
"That's the sort of case that could get started with a big bang and then fade," said Eugene Driker, a partner at Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker in Detroit who also worked with Millikin on the Lopez case. "But that's not Mike's style. He's not easily pushed off the path."
Today, Millikin leads a team of about 85 in-house lawyers in the United States, mostly based at GM's headquarters here, and roughly 140 more overseas, according to a person familiar with the department's structure.
One of the largest practice areas consists of about a dozen litigators who handle product liability lawsuits, says another person with knowledge of the department. They generally are assigned cases based on the vehicle type or geography.
They often specialize in a vehicle system, such as brakes or transmissions, and interface with GM engineers on specific cases, the source says.
The litigators often handle more than 100 civil cases at a time, with help from outside attorneys, the source says. They generally have the authority to settle cases on their own of up to a few hundred thousand dollars. Larger settlement amounts require authorization from higher up, the source says.
At the April 2 Senate subcommittee hearing, Millikin found himself in the hot seat along with Barra. Lawmakers questioned how multiple settlements with families of victims who died in crashes linked to the faulty switch wouldn't have triggered a closer review by his department.
Of the 13 deaths that GM has linked to the faulty switch in 2004-07 Chevy Cobalts and Saturn Ions, GM reached settlements with five victims' families over the years, the first coming in 2006, according to reporting by Automotive News.
Lawmakers also pointed to several depositions from GM engineers in spring of 2013 as part of a civil lawsuit brought by the family of Brooke Melton, a Georgia nurse who died in a 2010 crash of her 2005 Cobalt.
In the depositions, one engineer acknowledged that the switch problem wasn't fixed because of cost considerations. Trial lawyer Lance Cooper revealed that the switch's design had been changed in 2006, but the engineer responsible for the part denied knowing about it.
"I find it shocking that something like that ... wouldn't have gone directly up through the leadership of GM," Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., told Barra, while asking: "Does the general counsel report directly to the CEO?"
GM has said Millikin learned of the ignition switch issue after Jan. 31.
GM settled with Melton's family in October. GM recalled 1.6 million cars for the defective ignition switch in February, expanding it twice in March, to 2.6 million cars.
Peter Henning, a professor at Wayne State University Law School, says the general counsel at a company as large as GM would not normally "wade into the minutiae" of individual cases. But a pattern of settlements eventually should raise red flags.
"That's a key question in this case: What did the legal department know, and how high up did it go?" Henning says. "That ultimately may be unknowable. But it's worth asking."
Nick Bunkley contributed to this report.