GM CEO Pressed On Handling Of Ignition Switch Defect

Apr 2, 2014
Originally published on April 2, 2014 1:04 pm



This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

There was only one thing the new head of General Motors could really say about its recall of defective vehicles. The recall was a decade in coming, and the defect has been linked to at least 13 deaths.

Mary Barra faced questions about it yesterday before Congress.


MARY BARRA: My sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected, especially the families and friends who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry.

INSKEEP: Apologies were not enough for some lawmakers, who are targeting federal regulators, as well as GM. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: The last time Mary Barra was on Capitol Hill, the tone was completely different. In January, just a few days after taking the reigns of General Motors, she was a guest of the president for his State of the Union address. Her return yesterday was not triumphant.


BARRA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman and committee members.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please pull your microphone close to your mouth and make sure it's on. Thank you.

BARRA: Can you hear me? OK. Thank you, Mr. Chairman and committee members.

GLINTON: It was very clear, once Barra - who's a 30-year plus veteran of General Motors - sat down, that she was trying to separate the company she used to work for from the one she now leads.


BARRA: Whatever mistakes were made in the past, we will not shirk from our responsibilities now or in the future. Today's GM will do the right thing.

GLINTON: Another key point that Barra wanted to make for committee members was that the company was looking into why it took General Motors years to tell the public about a problem with ignition switches.

Dozens of times, during more than two hours of testimony, Barra said she'll know more after a private investigation being conducted for GM by a former U.S. attorney.


BARRA: I do not know the answer to that, and that's why we're doing this investigation. That's part of the investigation. I can answer specific questions at that point in time. That's why we're doing a full length - the investigation will tell us that.

GLINTON: Members of the committee were not pleased.

Representative Gregg Harper is a Republican from Mississippi.


REPRESENTATIVE GREGG HARPER: Ms. Barra, I know this not the most enjoyable experience to go through this, but we're in a situation that, you know, we don't trust the company right now.

GLINTON: Several lawmakers pointed to memos detailing GM's knowledge of the ignition problem over a decade, including Republican Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania.


REPRESENTATIVE TIM MURPHY: So, when GM concluded that the tooling cost and price pieces are too high, what does that mean?

BARRA: I find that statement to be very disturbing. If that was the reason the decision was made, that is unacceptable. That is not the way we do business in today's GM.

GLINTON: The hearing was not only about GM, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which overseas recalls.

David Friedman, the acting administrator of NHTSA, says GM withheld critical information which might have helped the agency connect the dots.


DAVID FRIEDMAN: This was a case where the team worked very hard to try to understand what was happening and wasn't able to see a significant enough trend or clear enough defect.

GLINTON: Meanwhile, families who sat at the back of the hearing room say someone should have acted.

Shannon Wooten spoke to NPR before the hearing.

SHANNON WOOTEN: My son Josh was killed in a 2006 Cobalt in 2009, right after we supposedly had got the ignition fixed.

GLINTON: Wooten says she wants officials at GM to be held accountable if it's found out that they were hiding information. But mostly, she says, she wants the company to listen and change.

WOOTEN: This right here is like being at the funeral again, you know? If they would have listened to one or two of us, we wouldn't have all these people out here today.

GLINTON: At the hearing, Mary Barra announced that GM would hire Kenneth Feinberg, who's known for handling high-profile victim compensation cases - such as 9/11 and the BP oil spill - to help with GM victims, though Barra refused to say when and how they'd be compensated.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.