Washington DC - Capitol Hill lawmakers investigating General Motors' slow recall of 2.6 million cars are zeroing in on engineers and others who may have been aware of problems with ignition switches linked to at least 13 deaths.
One month after congressional committees launched formal probes into why it took GM more than a decade to respond to ignition switch safety defects with the recall, they still don’t know exactly how company engineers initially reacted to the problem or whether senior executives were made aware of it.
House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee investigators last month spoke with GM lawyers about company documents.
GM Chief Executive Mary Barra had few detailed answers for lawmakers at hearings last week.
That panel and the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee now want to hear from people with direct knowledge of the switch defect, which can unexpectedly shut off engines, disabling airbags and making steering and braking more difficult.
Senator John Thune of the Senate committee said: “If you really want to get to the bottom of it you have to talk to people who were actually there when all this was going on.”
Some members of Congress and their aides expressed interest in calling GM engineers, including ignition switch designer Ray DeGiorgio, to testify at hearings that will probably be held in mid-year.
Congressional investigators have documents from GM that help explain some decisions.
One email chain involved engineer John Hendler and Lori Queen, an executive who had responsibility for small car development, discussing costs of redesigning the switch, for instance.
DeGiorgio, Hendler and Queen did not responded to requests for comment.
GM documents already turned over to the House committee raise questions that aides say are still unanswered, including how GM changed the switch in 2006.
DeGiorgio testified in 2013 in a deposition related to a suit against GM that he was unaware of a change in the part.
But a document turned over to Congress showed that he approved redesigning the switch in 2006.
The part number was not changed at the time, and the document also lacks a signature by a “GM Validation Engineer”.
Investigators want to know why.
Richard Blumenthal, a former federal prosecutor and Connecticut state attorney general, has said he wants to question lead GM engineers, but also “lower-level officials who may have knowledge about the reasons GM not only failed to correct the problem but also concealed it.”
Senator Kelly Ayotte, a former New Hampshire state attorney general who serves on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation panel that grilled Barra, has said GM's behavior may be criminal.
“The thing that I find most appalling is the deception here.”
She said: “That deception is really outrageous and totally unacceptable in terms of what they knew, when they knew it and what they told the public.”
Ayotte said she “very much” wants to get testimony from former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas, who was hired by GM to conduct an internal investigation of what has become a major safety issue, as well as a public-relations nightmare for the company.
Barra told Congress that she had to wait until Valukas's investigation finished to answer many questions.
The probe should be completed by June, she said.
Asked about Ayotte's comments about “deception” in the company, GM spokesman Greg Martin on Wednesday said the automaker “is taking an unsparing look at the circumstances that led to this recall” and that as facts become available, “we will not wait to take action.”
Martin said that GM will cooperate fully with Congress and an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, when asked about the possibility of Valukas testifying to lawmakers.
As Congress proceeds with its investigation, it also is laying the groundwork for possible legislation later this year that would prevent future safety defects from going unaddressed.
Any legislative action is expected to prompt a spirited auto industry lobbying campaign to mould such a bill to its liking.
Barra is also likely to be called back to Capitol Hill, to give lawmakers another chance to press her on steps she would take to prevent dangerous cars from remaining on the road.
In her testimony last week, Barra repeatedly apologised to Congress for the safety defect but provided few answers to Congress for why it was allowed to fester for so long amid repeated consumer complaints.
Barra, who became CEO in January after a 33-year GM career, said more would be known when the internal probe wrapped up.
That did not please members of Congress.
Representative Henry Waxman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said: “She could have gotten somebody who could have given her the information.
“But she thought she could just say, 'I'm sorry,' and that would be good enough. “