GM CEO Mary Barra won't attend awards event

Melissa Burden and David Shepardson
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. said late Wednesday that CEO Mary Barra will no longer attend a National Women's History Museum event at which she was to be honored, following objections from an advocacy group and families who lost loved ones due to defective ignition switches.

The organization confirmed that Barra is not receiving the award "at this time," but did not offer details. While the lead objector insisted she was told the award was being rescinded, it was not immediately clear whether the group intends to award it at another time.

"Out of respect for the National Women's History Museum and the honorees, CEO Mary Barra will not attend the de Pizan Honors next Monday, November 17th," GM said in a statement. "The decision was made to ensure that attendees can focus on recognizing the achievements of American women — past and present."

On Wednesday, Laura Christian of Maryland, the birth mother of Amber Marie Rose — a 16-year-old who was killed in a 2005 crash in a Chevrolet Cobalt tied to GM's ignition switch defect — released a letter to congressional co-chairs associated with the award. She said the letter was from more than 260 friends and family members of people who were seriously injured or died in crashes allegedly tied to the defect, and asked that they withhold the honor from Barra.

Christian, reached by phone late Wednesday, said she received a call from a museum official Wednesday afternoon, saying the museum was rescinding the award.

"We feel victorious," she said. "This was exactly what we wanted to happen."

GM has struggled for months to put the ignition switch crisis behind it. This was to be Barra's first high-profile public appearance in Washington since testifying four times before Congress about the company's safety record. The automaker recalled 2.59 million older Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars in February and March for defective ignition switches that have now been linked to 32 deaths and 35 serious injuries. Barra has maintained that she only learned of the recall on Jan. 31 — after she became CEO.

Known during the recall crisis for being outspoken and attending congressional hearings and protests, Christian said she pleaded with the press secretary of the women's organization to reconsider the award and select another woman to honor.

Christian said she told the group that giving Barra the award would be "a slap in the face for myself and many others who are actively grieving." Christian said the woman to whom she spoke was "very compassionate" and heard her "as a mother."

Christian said she was told that Barra was selected to receive the Katharine Graham Living Legacy Award award before GM's ignition switch crisis unfolded.

The letter signed by Christian and others said: "While we recognize that Mrs. Barra is the first woman to be named CEO of an American auto company, her first year in this position is only credited with one record so far: a record number of vehicle safety recalls connected to nearly 32 deaths and thousands of injuries."

Earlier in the week, the National Legal & Policy Center sent a request to the acting chair of the museum and congressional co-chairs, asking that the museum withdraw the award for Barra. The letter explained the center had concerns about Barra's credibility and continued investigation by the Justice Department related to the ignition switch recall.

In response to the nonprofit's request, the museum said: "The de Pizan Honors were established to recognize women who are breaking down barriers with an award named for the women on whose shoulders they stand. As the first female CEO of a leading automaker, Mary Barra has shattered the notion that the highest ranks of a traditionally male-dominated industry are reserved for men," said the museum statement in response to the National Legal & Policy Center. "Mrs. Barra stands on the shoulders of Katharine Graham who, as the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, blazed the trail for other women to follow."

Wednesday, the Alexandria, Va., group -- which is seeking to build a Washington museum to celebrate the historic accomplishments of American women — said it stood by its decision to honor Barra. But the same day, it apparently changed its mind.

Barra was slated to receive the award Monday evening in Washington. GM spokesman Pat Morrissey said it had been on Barra's calendar for months, but she and GM agreed Wednesday afternoon that she would not attend the event.

The museum, in its earlier statement, said GM had not provided financial support to the museum and did not seek recognition for its CEO. It said honorees were nominated and selected by a planning committee and that it was proud to recognize Barra.

Scheduled to receive awards from the organization are Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, and Debbie Sterling, founder and CEO of Goldieblox.

Admission to the fund-raising event is $150 for those who are not members of the group, and $10,000 for "gold" members, which includes six tickets.