Embattled GM suspends two engineers, asks NASA for help (+video)

After a roasting in Congress last week, GM has suspended two engineers documents suggest are linked to the ignition switch problem and asked NASA to look into the safety of its recalled cars.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri questions General Motors CEO Mary Barra on Capitol Hill in Washington last week.
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Amid an ongoing federal investigation into its recall of vehicles linked to 13 deaths, General Motors has placed two engineers on paid leave and is asking NASA to determine the safety of the cars it is recalling.

The moves come a week after members of Congress sharply criticized GM, saying the company has not been transparent enough in dealing with a defective ignition switch that investigators say momentarily powers down the engine and disables the airbags. About 2.6 million vehicles have been recalled worldwide.

GM did not identify the two engineers, but media reports identify them as Ray DeGiorgio, a switch engineer, and Gary Altman, a chief development engineer. Both men provided depositions last year in a civil suit related to the switches.

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Mr. Altman said he first noticed the ignition switch problem in 2004 and described a replacement switch issued in 2006 as an “improvement” but “not a fix to the issue,” according to documents collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is investigating the recall. Even so, Altman said he agreed with the installation of the switch in the vehicles.

Mr. DeGiorgio approved the new switch in April 2006, according to documents, even though he said in his deposition that he did not “recall ever authorizing such a change.”

In a Senate hearing last week, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri said DeGiorgio “lied” under oath. Thursday, she said in a statement that “it’s about time” GM put the two engineers on leave.

“Of the many frustrating moments in our hearing last week, an especially surreal one was learning that the GM employee who had obviously committed perjury hadn't even been suspended and was still on the job in a role with a direct impact on the safety of GM's products,” she said. “This marks a small step in the right direction for GM to take responsibility for poor – and possibly criminal – decisions that cost lives and put millions of American consumers at risk.”

GM is also under fire for missing a deadline last week to answer 107 questions requested by the NHTSA in its investigation. On Wednesday, the agency announced it was fining the automaker $7,000 for every day it fails to comply.

GM, meanwhile, has been trying to show that it is in front of the problem. On Thursday, it announced a program titled “Speak Up for Safety” designed to “remove perceived and real barriers to candid conversations between employees and their leaders as a step to foster a ‘safety first’ culture,” CEO Mary Barra said.

The company is also conducting an internal independent investigation, in addition to asking NASA to send a team to verify that the recalled cars, which include Chevrolet Cobalts and other small 2003 to 2007 model-year vehicles, can safely be driven. When that question came up in Congress last week, Ms. Barra said the vehicles were safe so long as no other keys were attached to the ignition key.

The GM recall, combined with the recall of 6.8 million Toyota vehicles worldwide this year, is likely to push federal regulators to clamp down on the industry. Last year, nearly 31 million vehicles were recalled in the US, according to the NHTSA.

Several members of Congress are suggesting measures to improve auto industry safety.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California wants to add a $3 fee on new vehicles to bolster the NHTSA budget. He also wants to raise potential penalties on automakers from $35 million to as much as $200 million.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut wants GM to create a $3 billion to $8 billion trust fund that will pay claims related to the defective vehicles.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader is also asking Congress to introduce the Dangerous Products Warning Act by Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, which would impose criminal liability for managers who knew of defects but failed to warn federal regulators.

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