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GM reassigns executive who dealt with ignition switch probe

DETROIT (Reuters) -- General Motors Co. has reassigned an executive who dealt with U.S. safety regulators probing defective ignition switches linked to at least 13 deaths, as part of a restructuring meant to improve vehicle safety, the automaker said today.

M. Carmen Benavides, director of field product investigations and evaluations and an executive who has worked closely with U.S. safety regulators in Washington, has been shifted to a new job in the Detroit automaker's safety group, GM spokesman Greg Martin said.

Benavides, who is now director of safety improvement initiatives, was replaced by Brian Latouf.

Benavides' name is on many documents in which GM responded to questions from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, including several in the recall of the faulty ignition switches. She also received an email last summer in which a top NHTSA official called GM "slow to communicate" and "slow to act" on details and recalls.

The Detroit News reported the reassignment on Friday.

Martin said the move was unrelated to the ignition switch recall and part of executive changes announced on April 22 that included splitting engineering into two groups and the retirement of engineering chief John Calabrese. GM said at the time that the restructuring was meant to improve vehicle safety and quality.

"Brian and Carmen will be undertaking important roles to support Jeff Boyer," Martin said, referring to GM's new global safety chief.

GM global product development chief Mark Reuss said last month more changes in the structure of his organization, which includes responsibility for engineering and recalls, were coming.

GM has recalled 2.6 million cars, including Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions, because the defective ignition switches are prone to being jostled into accessory mode while the cars were moving. That would shut off engines and disable power steering, power brakes and airbags.

In addition to its own internal probe of how it handled the problem switches, which company engineers first noticed in 2001, the automaker is facing investigations by NHTSA, Congress, the Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission and a number of states.

NHTSA has voiced frustration with GM to Benavides in the past. Frank Borris, head of NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation, said in a July 2013 email to Benavides the company was more difficult to work with than other automakers, citing six instances in which the agency disagreed with GM on safety issues. It was the same email in which he criticized the automaker as "slow to communicate" and "slow to act."

GM has placed two engineers linked to the faulty switch on paid leave as its internal probe continues. In addition to the exit of Calabrese, long-time engineer Jim Federico, who oversaw an earlier internal probe of the problems caused by the defective part, also recently retired. Federico joined motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson Inc as vice president of engineering.

GM has said the two retirements were not related to the defective ignition switch.

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