Steven Rattner, the former auto czar who led the government bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, says he witnessed GM’s problematic management culture firsthand and was shocked -- and crash victim advocates are asking why he didn’t act.
In an op-ed published in The New York Times, dated June 11, Rattner wrote that during his time on the presidential auto task force in 2009, he saw firsthand what independent investigator Anton Valukas detailed in his report as the “GM nod” and the “GM salute.” Those were names describing company officials’ unwillingness to act on or take blame for internal problems.
“So as he was working ‘for’ the American people did Mr. Rattner or anyone on the Presidential Task Force ask anyone at GM or NHTSA about the safety of people or just about dollars?” Louis Lombardo, auto safety researcher at Care for Crash Victims, asked in a statement responding to the op-ed.
Rattner wrote about his 2009 experiences with the leadership at GM, and how it contrasted with the automaker’s rival, Ford, which had managed to stay out of bankruptcy.
“Looking under the hood of GM was the most stunningly disappointing dissection of a paid-up member of corporate America in my 30-year Wall Street career,” Rattner wrote.
He wrote that while former GM CEO Rick Wagoner blamed outside forces on the company’s economic woes, Ford CEO Alan Mulally -- who came in as an outsider from Boeing -- took responsibility and completely restructured Ford’s management.
However, Rattner said he does not find GM executives at fault for the delayed ignition switch recall, which has been linked to 13 deaths and 54 crashes in Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars from the mid-2000s.
“Nor do I question the finding that uppermost management was unaware of the problem,” Rattner wrote. “Certainly, none of us on the auto task force had the slightest inkling.”
Joan Claybrook, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in an interview today that Rattner’s account does not present a clear narrative of the bankruptcy.
“[Rattner] sounds like a lawyer trying to have it both ways … they knew all this, but they didn’t know all this,” Claybrook said.
She added that Rattner was involved with the decision to absolve post-bankruptcy GM of liability for incidents that occurred before beforehand.
“I don’t know why he didn’t raise the issue a long time ago,” Claybrook said. “…By taking away the company’s liability, he’s encouraging them to have a wink, a nod and a salute.”
You can reach Kathleen Burke at firstname.lastname@example.org