WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. 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, lawmakers still do not 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.
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.
GM Chief Executive Mary Barra had few detailed answers for lawmakers
at hearings last week.
"If you really want to get to the bottom of it you really have to
talk to people who were actually there when all this was going on,"
said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the senior Republican on
the Senate committee.
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 likely come this spring
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 Reuters
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 last year 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.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, a former federal prosecutor
and Connecticut state attorney general, 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 it (the
ignition switch problem), but concealed it."
Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, a former New Hampshire state
attorney general who serves on the Senate Commerce, Science and
Transportation panel that grilled GM CEO Barra, has said GM's
behavior may be criminal.
"The thing that I found most appalling is the deception here and
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 told Reuters.
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 Detroit automaker.
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.
While it is not clear what kind of a measure would win Republican
and Democratic support, key lawmakers already are weighing their
The House committee, which is still trying to "connect the dots,"
will "identify the problem and then come back with corrective
legislation to fix it," pledged Chairman Fred Upton, in remarks to
reporters on Tuesday.
Senator Thune noted "the outrage" in Congress was bipartisan given
the deaths linked to GM's defective cars. And so, he said, if it is
determined that a legislative effort is needed, "I suspect it would
be pretty bipartisan" too.
While he talked about a "legislative fix," Upton would not say
whether it might aim to increase civil or criminal penalties on
manufacturers or impose tougher accident reporting requirements on
Upton, a Michigan Republican, played a role in the writing of a 2000
law that arose out of a congressional investigation into problems
involving Firestone tires on Ford Explorers.
Democrats already have proposed legislation to increase the maximum
civil penalties for violations of federal safety standards. They
also would strengthen reporting requirements when there are
fatalities and increase funding for agencies that oversee the auto
Consumers would get broader access to documents collected by the
government, under this plan.
If legislation is pursued, it could be slowed by long recesses
planned by Congress this year as members focus more on campaigning
for re-election in November.
Also, any legislative action is expected to prompt a spirited auto
industry lobbying campaign to mold a bill to its liking.
GM CEO 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 apologized 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
Barra, who became CEO in January after a 33-year GM career, said
more will be known when the internal probe wraps up.
That did not please members of Congress.
"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" said Representative Henry Waxman, the
senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a