April 2, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Barra under fire as Senate panel head rips GM

Washington — The head of a Senate panel blasted General Motors Co. for a “culture of cover-up,” while another accused the automaker of “criminal deception” for failing to take action to fix defects earlier in the recall of nearly 2.6 million cars linked to 13 deaths.

GM CEO Mary Barra came under withering criticism from every senator who spoke at the hearing. It marked likely the toughest questioning of any CEO by Congress in several years, with no one coming to the company’s defense at any point.

The new head of GM found no allies on either side of the aisle, facing very harsh questions. She was shown pictures of crashes and repeatedly challenged on her lack of answers or the fact that no one has been fired.

The committee wants to hear directly from GM lawyers about why the revelation was withheld that the faulty ignition switch was beefed up, but the part number never changed. They want to question the former U.S. attorney heading the internal investigation. And they want engineers to ensure that the cars are safe to drive until repaired.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who heads the Senate Commerce subcommittee that oversees auto safety and questioned GM CEO Mary Barra for about two hours, said an engineer “repeatedly lied” during depositions last year when he didn’t admit to approving the upgrade of the faulty ignition switch part in April 2006.

The Detroit automaker had a “culture of cover-up” that encouraged that, McCaskill said. She called the engineer’s actions “an egregious violation of public trust.” Barra didn’t dispute any of the allegations, saying repeatedly that the company’s internal investigation will find the truth.

“If this is the new GM leadership, this is pretty lacking,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., expressing frustration. “You don’t know anything about anything.”

She invoked the fact that Barra is the first woman to run a major automaker: “As a woman to woman, I am very disappointed.”

Boxer read the resume from Barra’s 33-year career at GM and repeatedly questioned why she didn’t know anything at various points, saying it was “very strange” that a high-level executive wouldn’t know.

A grim-faced Barra rushed into an elevator guarded by Capitol Police without answering questions after the hearing.

A statement attributed to Barra was released afterward: “The issues raised in the hearing were tough but fair. I appreciate the intense interest by the senators to fully understand what happened and why. I am going to accomplish exactly that, and we will keep Congress informed. Meanwhile, we will continue doing all we can to repair our customers’ vehicles and rebuild their trust in GM.”

McCaskill told reporters she was frustrated Barra didn’t answer more questions. “It was clear to me that she made up her mind that she would not talk about specifics at any of these hearings.” She said there would be more hearings where they could get answers.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., blasted GM’s decision to not change the part number of the switch in April 2006 after it had been redesigned to make it less likely to accidentally turn off, killing the engine and disabling power steering and air bags in Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars. “This is criminal deception,” Ayotte said. “I don’t see this as anything but criminal.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in New York is conducting a criminal investigation into GM’s handling of the recall and complaints.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said GM is likely to face criminal sanctions in connection with the recall. During the testimony, he asked Barra to “do the right thing” and stop using GM’s 2009 bankruptcy shield from most product liability claims. Barra reiterated that the company was reviewing all options. He asked if she would allow her children to drive a recalled Cobalt; she said yes.

Barra agreed that GM engineers could talk to the committee about why they are convinced that the vehicles are safe. She said if she was presented with evidence that the vehicles — when only driven with an ignition key — could pose a risk, “I would ground these vehicles across the country.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., compared what happened to GM to a restaurant owner having poison in its food and not changing the recipe. He asked if GM intentionally misled the public or regulators. “The facts are the facts and we’ll deal with those,” Barra replied.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Barra was responsible for changing the culture. “You are the new sheriff in town,” he said, questioning whether GM should advise owners to drive the recalled cars before they are fixed.

Separately, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, Calvin Scovell, confirmed he will launch an audit into NHTSA’s handling of GM complaints, after it received a request last month from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Scovell declined to confirm his office is part of a criminal investigation into GM.

NHTSA Administrator David Friedman defended the agency’s decision in 2007 to not open an investigation despite a formal request from a senior investigator after reports of four fatal crashes involving Cobalts that have since been recalled. He said the data didn’t support an investigation.

The hearings are sparking more interest in reforming auto safety legislation. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has reintroduced legislation to give NHTSA more power to quickly get unsafe recalled vehicles off the road, add a $3 fee to new car sales to boost auto safety regulatory efforts and levy higher fines for not disclosing problems in a timely manner.

Under questioning, Barra declined to endorse any aspects of various auto safety bills.

She did say GM will share “everything” about safety to Congress and regulators, clarifying comments to the House on Tuesday that GM would share “what’s appropriate” from GM’s internal investigation.

“Anything remotely related to the safety of the vehicle ... will readily be shared” with Congress, NHTSA and the public, Barra said, saying only competitive information and employee privacy issues will be withheld.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee. / Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP