May 28, 2014 at 9:55 pm

Ex-GM CEO Akerson: Barra 'unaware' of ignition switch problem

Dan Akerson (Chuck Myers / MCT)

Former General Motors Co. CEO Dan Akerson says he believes his successor Mary Barra was unaware of the ignition switch problems that led to the eventual recall of 2.6 million vehicles linked to 13 deaths and 47 crashes.

In an interview with Forbes, Akerson — breaking his silence on the issue — said the board didn’t throw Barra under the bus by giving her the job and knowing of a looming crisis.

“Mary has said it: The moment she became aware of the problem, as I would expect, she confronted it. She didn’t know about it. I bet my life on it,” Akerson told the magazine in a story that was posted Wednesday morning.

GM has turned over hundreds of thousands of pages of records to Congress, and no emails or other records have emerged to suggest Barra knew about the issue in her prior jobs in product development and in other positions.

GM’s board met in Washington in December to pick a successor after Akerson told the board he needed to leave ahead of schedule because his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. Barra took over as CEO on Jan. 15, about a month before the first ignition switch recall.

Former senior executives at GM have previously told The Detroit News that top management was unaware of the issue. The Justice Department, Securities and Exchange Commission, a group of attorneys general and two congressional committees are investigating.

GM plans to issue its internal report from a former U.S. attorney in Chicago as early as next week into what went wrong, planning to provide a detailed chronology of the events that led to GM’s eventual recall of 2.6 million vehicles. GM also is expected soon to have a report from compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg. GM hired Feinberg to help the automaker look at options and determine if it will compensate victims related to the ignition switch defect — and if so, how much it will pay them.

This month, GM paid a record-setting $35 million fine and agreed to up to three years of enhanced oversight by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over its delayed recall.

GM Chairman Tim Solso also told the magazine that the board has confidence in Barra.

“The confidence has grown over a period of time, given the way that Mary has handled all the situations: testifying before Congress, meeting with the media,” Solso said. “She’s done a superb job, and the board recognizes that.”

Barra, in a rare interview since the GM recall crisis hit, also tells Forbes about listening to the stories of families who lost loved ones in crashes they believe are tied to the faulty ignition switches and she thinks the crisis will help the automaker change its ways.

“I really feel — obviously we want to do the right thing and serve the customer well through this — but it’s also an opportunity to accelerate cultural change,” she said.

More changes are expected once GM releases its internal report. The automaker already has made numerous changes to its safety engineering operations, as a few top engineering executives have retired from the company and Barra placed two engineers on paid leave. GM has restructured its vehicle engineering department and has moved several employees into new jobs in its safety engineering division.

Former Obama administration auto adviser Harry Wilson said last week the crisis “sadly is emblematic of the cultural problems.”

“They would do anything to save a penny, including some really bad decisions, both economically and morally. That was a part of the culture that was driven by a company that was living on the brink of disaster for many years prior to 2009,” Wilson said.

'Mary has said it: The moment she became aware of the problem, as I would ... (Steve Fecht / General Motors)