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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the Obama administration didn’t bring criminal charges against employees at General Motors that were responsible for a deadly ignition switch defect linked to 124 deaths because of politics.

At a CNBC-moderated Republican presidential debate, Christie — a former U.S. attorney — was asked if he would have prosecuted GM employees if he had overseen the investigation. He said he would have and said he would have sent them to jail.

“This Justice Department under this president has been a political Justice Department,” Christie said. “They like General Motors, so they give them a pass. They don't like someone else like (Retired Gen.) David Petraeus. They prosecute them and sent a decorated general to disgrace.”

In September, GM was charged by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara with two felonies and agreed to pay $900 million fine and to three years of oversight by a federal monitor.

GM spokesman Jim Cain on Wednesday declined to comment on Christie’s remarks.

In a recent Detroit News interview, Bharara defended his decision not to bring charges against GM.

Prosecutors “had a duty and obligation both morally, professional and intellectually to those victims and if there was a way to do it, we would do it and if there's not we can't,” Bharara told The News in an interview in his New York office. “Some people were disappointed in how far we were able to go, but we still went farther than anybody else in history.”

Bharara said it wasn't a lack of will, but a lack of laws.

“Part of the reason there aren't more prosecutions in the auto industry is because of the available laws. Stronger laws have been suggested, but they have not passed,” he said.

Under terms of the agreement, GM didn’t plead guilty but essentially will be on probation over the next three years; an independent monitor will be named to oversee GM’s safety efforts.

The settlement largely ended the criminal investigation into the automaker’s delayed recall for 2.6 million defective ignition switches. The switches in Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and some other older GM cars can allow the key to inadvertently turn off the engine, disabling power steering and air bags. Some within the company knew of the problem for as long as 10 years before the cars finally were called back.

Bharara, who met with families of those killed in the since-recalled cars, said there is no specific law that makes it a crime for automakers to withhold disclosure of deadly safety issues. “We can only do what the law permits and allows. ... It’s not as easy as it looks sometimes.”

GM’s total cost to date for its delayed recall is about $2.35 billion when including the expected payout of a compensation program for those hurt or killed in defective cars.

GM’s independent fund approved compensation for 124 deaths and more than 270 injury claims tied to the ignition switch defect. GM expects to pay $625 million in compensation.

Aaron Kall, who directs the University of Michigan’s Debate Program and Debate Institute, said it was somewhat predictable the question about GM ignition switch case would go to Christie considering his prosecutorial experience.

“I’m not sure it’s going to make a huge difference for him because he’s so far behind in the polls,” Kall said. “Still it’s a good example of a candidate using their experience and showing why their particular skill set would help them in this contest and in the general election.”

Kall said the first part of the debate differed from earlier GOP debates this season because less time was spent questioning the frontrunners.

The standout exchange between Floridians Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio over Rubio’s missed votes in the U.S. Senate ended with Rubio getting the better of Bush, Kall said.

“You could tell that he certainly prepared for that line of questioning,” Kall said of Rubio, who rattled off stats about other politicians that had missed significant amounts of votes but hadn’t been asked to resign their seats.

“He also did something that’s proven very popular in other debates … attacking the mainstream media. That got a very good response from the crowd,” Kall added.

Kall observed that Donald Trump and Ben Carson seemed to be avoiding direct attacks on one another – likely to their benefit.

“I think they and their campaigns are going to be happy about that, because they have the leads both nationally and in the important early states like Iowa and New Hampshire,” Kall said.

“If they don’t get into squabbles and fights with the lower-tier candidates and just stay with the status quo, they’re going to remain high in the polls going into the next debate in two weeks.”

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

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