April 10, 2014 at 1:00 am

GM idles 2 staffers in wake of recall

General Motors has placed two company engineers on paid leave in the wake of an internal investigation into the company's recall of 2.6 million vehicles for ignition switch defects linked to at least 13 deaths and 32 crashes. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

The two General Motors Co. engineers singled out last week in congressional hearings into GM’s delayed recalls of 2.6 million cars have been put on paid leave.

Gary Altman and Ray DeGiorgio were put on leave as part of a continuing internal investigation into the company’s recalls of the older cars for ignition switch defects, according to a source familiar with the investigation. The defect has been linked to at least 13 deaths.

Congressional panel members were incredulous that nobody had been fired for delays in issuing recalls, and they pointed to documents linking the engineers to the problem. Altman, who last year was chief engineer on the Chevrolet Cruze diesel, was program engineering manager on the Chevrolet Cobalt through May 2005. DeGiorgio was GM’s project engineer responsible for the ignition switch on the Saturn Ion and Cobalt.

GM would not identify the engineers placed on leave and spokesman Kevin Kelly would not say when those leaves began. The Detroit News could not reach Altman or DeGiorgio for comment; nobody at their Metro Detroit homes answered the doors.

GM CEO Mary Barra on Thursday said the decision to place them on leave came after an update from Anton Valukas, the former U.S. attorney who is overseeing an independent investigation into GM’s handling of the recall. “This is an interim step as we seek the truth about what happened,” Barra said in a statement.

Last week, Barra came under harsh criticism from members of Congress after acknowledging no one had been fired — even though GM learned of ignition problems in 2001 in a preproduction Ion. GM repeatedly declined to recall the cars over a decade, closing investigations and declining to replace the switch because there was not a “business case.” Documents showed GM could have replaced switches for as little as 90 cents. GM changed the part in April 2006 but then failed to switch the part number.

Citing a document that showed his signature on the April 2006 part change, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., accused DeGiorgio of lying last year in a deposition by not acknowledging he had signed off on the change.

“The data put in front of me indicates that, but I’m waiting for the full investigation,” Barra answered in her Senate testimony. “I want to be fair.”

Altman, in a June 2013 deposition as part of a lawsuit filed against GM involving 29-year-old Brooke Melton, who died in 2010 in an accident in a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, said he had worked at GM for 35 years. He described his responsibilities at the time as program engineering manager for the Cobalt and Pontiac G5 as coordinating designers, engineers and manufacturing.

The engineer said he was not aware the ignition switch in the 2005 Cobalt did not meet GM’s minimum torque requirement and admitted cars should not have been sold because of that and because they could be dangerous under certain conditions.

Altman said a proposed change to provide keys with a small hole instead of long slot — to give heavy key rings less leverage to turn the switch off — was not a 100 percent fix. He said if GM had a sure fix at the time, it would have spent money on it.

Documents provided to the House Energy and Commerce committee by GM indicate that DeGiorgio, a GM employee since 1991, “signed off on a Delphi ignition switch change on April 26, 2006.” In an April 2013 deposition, however, DeGiorgio said GM “certainly did not approve a ... design change” in 2006.

DeGiorgio, in a deposition also in the Melton case, said GM designed the ignition switches that first appeared in the 2003 Saturn Ion and that the switches that appeared in the Ion and Cobalt were one of DeGiorgio’s first ignition switch projects.

Adding to their troubles, DeGiorgio and Altman on Thursday were named with three former GM employees, GM and another driver in a civil lawsuit in Texas seeking damages for a woman seriously injured in a 2013 accident. Didra De Los Santos of Corpus Christi, Texas, was hurt when her 2006 Chevy Cobalt stalled and collided with another vehicle.

At an employee town hall meeting Thursday at the Warren Tech Center, Barra announced an internal Speak Up for Safety campaign. The meeting was broadcast to all employees.

“GM must embrace a culture where safety and quality come first,” Barra told employees. “GM employees should raise safety concerns quickly and forcefully, and be recognized for doing so.”

The campaign is intended to remove barriers to candid conversations between employees and their leaders to foster a “safety first” culture, GM said.

McCaskill said placing the engineers on leave was the right move. “Of the many frustrating moments in our hearing last week, an especially surreal one was learning that the GM employee who had obviously committed perjury hadn’t even been suspended and was still on the job in a role with a direct impact on the safety of GM’s products.”

Detroit News Staff Writer Karl Henkel contributed.

Altman. (Brian Kersey / Chevrolet)