Slamming a "culture of cover-up," U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill today demanded answers from General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra, as well as the national highway safety chief and Inspector General for the Department of Transportation on GM's slow action to recall 2.6 million vehicles for defective ignition switches that have been linked to at least 13 deaths-including a fatality in Missouri. McCaskill grilled witnesses on GM's decisions over more than 10 years to not issue a safety recall-despite the fact that engineers discovered the problem in 2004-and questioned whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has the capability, data, and resources to effectively monitor vehicle safety defects.
"Thousands of my constituents in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas go to work for General Motors every day building some of the finest cars on the road," said McCaskill, Chairman of the Senate's Consumer Protection Subcommittee. "I am proud of them and I am proud of their work. This is not their failure. They and the American public were failed by a corporate culture that chose to conceal rather than disclose. And by a safety regulator that failed to act."
Last month, GM announced that it was recalling approximately 1.6 million vehicles to correct a defect with the ignition switches that caused them to move out of position while the car was on, triggering a loss of power and stopping the airbags from deploying properly. GM announced Friday that it was expanding the recall to cover 2.6 million vehicles.
A GM ignition switch engineer became aware of the defect, but did not disclose the information-apparently lying under oath during his testimony in a lawsuit related to a 2010 crash.
McCaskill said of the engineer, "It is hard for me to imagine you would want him anywhere near engineering anything at GM under these circumstances, and I for the life of me can't understand why he still has his job. I know you want to be methodical, I know you want to be thorough, I know you want to get this right. But I think it sends exactly the wrong message."
McCaskill highlighted the fact that the switch issue was brought to light by a trial lawyer, rather than GM itself, while he investigated the death of his client.
"I want to know in how many cases they buried this document," McCaskill said. "Because this is what happens in America. Corporations think they can get away with hiding documents from litigants and that there will be no consequences. And I want to make sure there's consequences for hiding documents. Because this is hiding the truth from families that need to know. And it's outrageous. And it needs to stop."
McCaskill also grilled Barra on whether there was a persistent culture of cover-up and lack of accountability at the company that persisted for over a decade-questioning why the company waited to take action after learning of the faulty ignition switch, saying: "That is incredibly frustrating that to me that you wouldn't have a simple timeline of what happened once you got that knowledge. So it went on for nine months. You had no idea, even though you were in the executive leadership of level in the company at the time."
McCaskill's panel also heard testimony from NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman, and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Inspector General Calvin Scovel, where she examined the resources at NHSTA's disposal to conduct investigations and enforce safety compliance.
"I think we need to have the resources and the expertise at NHTSA to find these defects and then obviously we've got to have the transparency in the process that is available to the public and available to anyone who wants to see it," McCaskill said.
McCaskill and the Subcommittee will examine potential legislative solutions to addresses possible problems with NHTSA's defect investigation and recall processes as the subcommittee looks to craft vehicle safety provisions of the surface transportation authorization due to expire later this year.