WASHINGTON - A Senate subcommittee chairwoman on Wednesday demanded to know who at General Motors may have been informed last April when a company engineer said he knew of no change being made to now-recalled ignition switches even though he apparently signed off on it himself.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo,. a former prosecutor and chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, battered GM CEO Mary Barra in her second day of testimony before Congress with questions about why the company did not act sooner to recall defective vehicles.
Barra has been called to explain why GM didn't react to red flags dating back to 2001 that Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and similar vehicles had faulty ignitions. The company has recalled 2.5 million vehicles worldwide in the last two months, saying if those ignitions are jostled out of position, it could result in air bags not deploying in the event of a crash.
Thirteen deaths and 31 crashes have been linked to the defect.
McCaskill zeroed in on a court deposition in April 2013 in a case involving a Georgia woman killed in a Chevrolet Cobalt in 2009. In that deposition, GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio told a lawyer he, as switch engineer for the car, had never signed off on changes to the ignition.
But GM documents showed DeGiorgio had himself approved the change in April 2006, McCaskill said.
"He lied," McCaskill said.
She demanded Barra tell her who GM lawyers in the room with DeGiorgio contacted after that "bombshell" was dropped at the deposition that the switch had been changed. She bristled at Barra's response that she didn't know.
McCaskill said if she were the lawyer, "I'm on the cellphone in the lobby to General Motors saying, 'We've got a problem.'"
Barra, who has held various leadership positions at GM over a decade before becoming CEO this year, said simply the company's legal team would have been contacted. She said as for the fact that top GM officials appeared not to have known about the 2006 change that largely addressed the defect — but that the part number wasn't changed, which could have led to a recall— "there were silos."
Barra said information "didn't necessarily get communicated as effectively as it should have."
"I commit to you I will make change, both people and process," Barra said later in the hearing.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said the fact that the part number was never changed -- meaning the older, faulty part could still be put in new models by mechanics -- could rise to the level of "criminal behavior."
As she had Tuesday before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, Barra largely ducked specific answers, saying she is awaiting the results of an internal investigation about why the company did not react earlier than this year to red flags involving faulty ignitions.
She repeated that the culture of the company has changed post-bankruptcy to be more consumer oriented, saying cost was more central at times before the 2009 bankruptcy reorganization and "that (earlier) culture wasn't always so welcoming of bad news." GM has recalled 7 million vehicles worldwide so far this year.
Sen Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was unmoved by Barra's claims that the GM culture was changing. "I really hate to say this, but if this is the new GM leadership, I'm disappointed," Boxer said. "The culture you are representing here today is the culture of the status quo."
Barra said GM was hiring noted compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg to help the company determine how to respond to consumer claims from which GM may enjoy bankruptcy protection but could waive.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., questioned whether that was a strong enough indication that the company will react appropriately to the claims of families who saw drivers killed or hurt in these vehicles.
"He's not a bankruptcy expert," Blumenthal said of Feinberg, who helped run compensation efforts for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the BP Gulf Coast oil spill and the Boston Marathon bombings. "Why not just come clean and say we're going to do justice here? We're going to do the right thing. We're going to pay claims."
Barra said GM would do "the right thing" but has refused to promise outright to waive its protection or set up a victims fund as requested by Blumenthal, who also believes the recalled Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and similar vehicles should be parked until replacement parts become available sometime next week.
Overall, Blumenthal sounded an ominous tone: "The more I see in the documents, the more convinced I am that GM has a real exposure to criminal liability."