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Senate Panel Grills General Motors CEO Mary Barra

April 4, 2014

Taking into account Wednesday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing, it will seem like the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee went easy on General Motors CEO Mary Barra the day before. Barra was on the hot seat again at Capitol Hill, but her second day proved to be much tougher with senators grilling her over GM’s delayed defective ignition switch recall.

Barra’s testimony revealed nothing new, which irked senators and representatives from both parties. She again apologized, refused to answer questions by saying that she will wait until after the internal investigation conducted by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas is over, and promised to return to Capitol Hill with the answers.

As expected, members of the Committee’s consumer protection panel were frustrated with the lack of information, and the frustration became apparent with the heated exchanges. The female members of Congress were the most harsh on Barra, who remained calm throughout the hearing.

GM’s Chief Executive was criticized for instructing the owners of the vehicles with the faulty ignition switch to remove everything from the key ring except for the ignition key. Senators slammed the automaker’s insistence that the vehicles were safe, saying that GM should have advised the owners to stop driving them until the defective part can be replaced.

One crucial topic of discussion was GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio, who claimed in an April 2013 deposition that he was not aware of and did not approve any ignition switch changes in 2006. However, an April 2006 document revealed that DeGiorgio knew about and authorized the switch redesign.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), the chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance, accused DeGiorgio of lying.

“For the life of me, I can’t understand why he still has his job. He perjured himself under oath,” she said.

Barra revealed in her House committee testimony on Tuesday that DeGiorgio was still a GM employee.

Barra told the panel that GM will make accountable the employees who made decisions regarding the defective switch as well as the long overdue recall concerning the said part. However, she said that the company will not be able to take action until the completion of the internal investigation, which will be finished in 45 to 60 days.

Congress members insinuated that GM tried to cover up the problem by not assigning a new number for the redesigned part.

Barra was also reprimanded for appearing to be unaware of problems in the company, despite being its top official.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) wondered why information about DeGiorgio’s deposition, which was given more than 9 months prior to GM’s recall, did not reach GM’s top executives. According to Barra, the lawyer who sat in on the deposition was supposed to report to someone in the company’s senior legal team and admitted she did not know why the details were not passed on to top executives.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) proved to be the most critical of Barra. She wondered why Barra, a veteran employee who assumed several high-ranking positions in her 33-year career at GM, has limited knowledge of the problem that was first determined years before the affected vehicles were sold.

“You’re a really important person to this company,” Boxer noted. “It’s strange that such a top employee would know nothing.”

In her frustration, Boxer delivered what was probably the hearing’s most scathing statement: “You don’t know anything about anything.”

The Senate panel, which raised the possibility of GM’s criminal prosecution, wanted more hearings in order to question former GM officials who were in charge when the defective part was put in the affected vehicles.

Photo credit: © General Motors CC BY-NC

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