A Senate panel today raised the prospect of criminal prosecution and promised more hearings over General Motors’ failure to fix a defective ignition switch, as GM CEO Mary Barra withstood a scolding from lawmakers flummoxed by a lack of answers.
Members of the Senate Commerce Committee's consumer protection panel said future hearings will likely seek to question former GM officials who were in charge during the years that the faulty ignition switch -- now tied to 13 deaths -- was left in 2.6 million mid-2000s cars without a recall until February.
“I think we need to hear from people who had the key positions at GM who perhaps had knowledge of this,” Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said.
Facing a sharply harsher tone than during her testimony before a House panel a day earlier, Barra remained composed while vowing to return to Capitol Hill with answers once GM's investigation is done. But panel members vented frustration over the CEO’s inability to answer even questions related to documents that GM itself turned over to lawmakers.
At one point during the 100-minute hearing, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., snapped at Barra in frustration: “You don't know anything about anything!”
Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and chairwoman of the subcommittee, accused a GM engineer of lying about his role in the 2006 redesign of the flawed ignition switch, and said GM “chose to conceal, rather than disclose” the safety defect for more than seven years.
She cited an April 2006 document, released Tuesday by House lawmakers, showing that GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio authorized the redesign of the switch that’s now at the center of the recall. GM has told regulators that the redesigned part was never assigned a new part number, a violation of company protocols that complicated engineers’ efforts to figure out why the switches in later-model cars were different.
DeGiorgio, in an April 2013 deposition, told a lawyer representing the family of a Georgia woman who was killed when her 2005 Cobalt crashed that he didn’t approve any changes to the ignition switch in 2006. “I was not aware of a detent plunger switch change. We certainly did not approve a detent plunger design change,” DeGiorgio said in the deposition obtained by Automotive News.
“He lied,” McCaskill said at the hearing, without naming DeGiorgio.
When McCaskill later repeated that charge, the CEO responded, “The data that’s been put in front of me indicates that,” but she said she is awaiting the end of the company’s investigation.
Still an employee
In her testimony before a House committee on Tuesday, Barra told lawmakers that DeGiorgio is still a GM employee but said she didn’t know who was responsible for the decision to authorize the redesign without a new part number being assigned.
McCaskill sternly questioned Barra about why GM’s top executives wouldn’t have been briefed on the findings from the DeGiorgio deposition in April 2013, more than nine months before GM announced a recall.
Barra has said that she didn’t find out about a problem with the Cobalt until last December, days after she was appointed CEO. She assumed the post on Jan. 15.
Barra said the lawyer retained by GM who sat in on that deposition would have reported to “part of the senior legal team,” but said she didn't know why the information wouldn’t have been relayed to top executives.
“That is part of the investigation,” Barra told McCaskill, referring to an internal GM investigation being led by Chicago attorney Anton Valukas.