WASHINGTON — A Senate panel pummeled General Motors CEO Mary Barra on Wednesday with accusations including an illegal cover-up by GM and an engineer lying under oath.
It was Barra's second day of rough handling by Congress and it was tougher than the grilling Tuesday by a House panel in hearings into why GM took so long to recall of 2.53 million older small cars for ignitions that can suddenly shut off the engine and disable air bags and power assist for steering and braking. Thirteen deaths and 32 crashes have been linked to the defect.
Barra was told she represents no real change in attitude at GM and, as she declined to answer specific questions about the years leading up to the recall until GM's internal probe is done, was told by a frustrated Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), "You don't know anything about anything."
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U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a former prosecutor who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection holding the hearing, criticized GM for what she called "a culture of cover-up" and said a GM engineer lied when asked last year about whether the defective part had been changed.
"It might have been the old GM that started sweeping this defect under the rug 10 years ago. But even under the new GM banner the company waited nine months to take action after being confronted with specific evidence of this egregious violation of public trust," McCaskill said.
Barra, three months on the job, told the subcommittee, as she had the House panel the day before, that the new GM is more "focused on the customer" compared to a "cost culture" years ago at the automaker.
"When we heard about the problem (this year) we acted without hesitation," Barra said. "Today's GM will do the right thing."
She has said she didn't learn of the problem until January of this year, just before the recalls were ordered, despite warnings involving faulty ignition switches in these cars dating back to 2001 and numerous complaints, internal investigations and other red flag warnings.
"You're a really important person to this company. Something is very strange that such a top employee would know nothing," said Boxer, who later in the hearing added, "Woman to woman, I'm disappointed."
Barra remained calm throughout but refused to answer specific questions about why it took so long to issue the widening recall on Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and similar cars this year. Again, she said she would wait for results of GM's internal investigation by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas.
McCaskill took a strong tone at the start. She zeroed in on a court deposition in April 2013 in a case involving a Georgia woman killed in a Chevrolet Cobalt in 2009. In it, Ray DeGiorgio, GM's switch engineer for the car, said he never signed off on changes to the ignition.
"He lied," McCaskill said of DeGiorgio's testimony in a deposition. McCaskill noted GM documents that showed DeGiorgio signed off on a design change to the switches in April 2006 and said "a culture of coverup ... allowed an engineer at General Motors to lie under oath."
McCaskill demanded Barra tell her who GM lawyers with DeGiorgio contacted after that "bombshell" was dropped at the deposition, that the switch had been changed without the lead engineer's approval. She bristled at Barra's response that she didn't know.
Barra confirmed that DeGiorgio is still with GM and insisted throughout that it's premature to take action until Valukas' probe for GM is complete.
She said she could only respond to McCaskill's questions that "one of the findings" that Valukas had already provided is that "there were silos and as information was known in one part of the business, for instance, the legal team, it didn't necessarily get communicated as effectively as it should have been to other parts. That is something that I've already corrected."
Senators got Barra to promise to discipline or fire people involved in what they said was a coverup of the switch flaw. "I commit to you I will make change, both people and process," Barra said later in the hearing.
Barra said GM would do "the right thing" for people harmed by the defect, but continued to refuse to promise outright to waive its liability protection resulting from the 2009 bankruptcy reorganization, or set up a victims fund.
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She noted that GM is hiring noted compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg to help the company determine how to respond to consumer claims. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., questioned whether that was a strong enough indication GM will react appropriately to claims of families with relatives hurt or killed.
"He's not a bankruptcy expert," said Blumenthal of Feinberg, who helped run compensation efforts for victims of the 9/11 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 pay claims."
Blumenthal also said he believes the recalled cars should be parked until replacement parts become available sometime next week.
Barra said that if she didn't believe the cars were safe to drive if drivers follow advice to only use the key with no extra weight on it she would "ground these cars" immediately. She also noted dealers have been told to provide loaners to anyone feeling nervous about driving the cars.
Testifying before the same Senate subcommittee minutes after Barra, acting chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said GM airbags shouldn't have failed to deploy even when the ignition switches failed."To be honest, that doesn't make sense to me," NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman told the Senate panel.
"Power loss in a vehicle is not uncommon. There are capacitors built into those airbag systems, to ensure that they" deploy even when the ignition switch cuts power.
Capacitors store electricity for short periods.
He told Senators that "it might not be that the power wasn't on, but that the act of moving from run to accessory" fouled up the computer logic that decides when to deploy the bags.
Defending his agency against criticism for not reacting to early warnings about switch problem, he again said that had GM provided the data it had regarding ignition switches and air bag deployments the agency might have moved sooner.
Friedman said he was most concerned that GM had changed the part in 2006 without the part number having changed, saying "very clearly, it was a defect." Had that defect been detected as a result of the number being changed, it could have led to regulatory action.
Friedman also said GM appeared to have information that an algorithm used to help air bag sensors deploy in crashes could have been compromised by ignition switches inadvertently moving from "run" to "accessory" position.
"If we find that they did violate their responsibilities to act quickly we will hold them accountable," Friedman said.
GM is required to furnish, by Thursday, answers to 107 questions from NHTSA that Friedman hopes will shed more light on how the airbags operate.