May 29, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Suspended GM engineer questioned by House investigators

Washington — A House committee investigating General Motors Co.’s handling of a recall of 2.6 million vehicles linked to at least 13 deaths and 47 crashes interviewed a suspended engineer at the center of the crisis earlier this month.

An Energy and Commerce Committee aide confirmed that staff met with GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio and other current and former company officials, and are continuing to conduct interviews. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, has said he plans to hold another hearing, but the committee hasn’t set a date after the committee questioned GM CEO Mary Barra in early April.

The New York Times reported that DeGiorgio spoke to committee investigators for 10 hours on May 19 and that he was emotional at times. DeGiorgio reportedly told the investigators he had forgotten his decision to order an ignition switch upgrade during a 2013 deposition.

The newspaper also reported the committee has interviewed a second suspended GM engineer, Gary Altman.

GM spokesman Greg Martin declined to comment. GM’s internal report on its handling of the issue by a former U.S. attorney in Chicago is expected as early as next week.

The Detroit News and other outlets reported on April 10 that Altman and DeGiorgio were put on paid leave as part of a continuing internal investigation into the company’s recalls of the older cars for ignition switch defects.

Members of Congress who questioned Barra in April were incredulous that nobody had been fired for delays in issuing recalls. 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.

Barra 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.

GM learned of ignition switch problems in 2001 in a pre-production Ion. GM repeatedly declined to recall the cars over a decade. GM changed the part in April 2006, but then failed to switch the part number.

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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.

The engineer said in the deposition he was not aware the ignition switch in the 2005 Cobalt did not meet GM’s minimum requirement for force to turn the ignition key.

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.

Several GM safety officials have retired, left the company or moved to other positions as the recall crisis has unfolded. GM has named a new vice president overseeing safety issues and more than doubled the number of engineers looking at safety issues. GM has recalled a record 15.8 million vehicles worldwide in about 30 campaigns this year — about 20 times as many vehicles as it recalled last year.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com