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General Motors boss Mary Barra was grilled again by Congress on Wednesday as the chairman of the House committee investigating its fatal ignition switch scandal said he continued to believe there had been a cover-up at the car giant.
Members of the House energy and commerce subcommittee said there was evidence that whistleblowers were afraid to speak up in the company, and that the warnings of those who did speak out were ignored.
Chairman Tim Murphy, Republican from Pennsylvania, said: “I remain unconvinced there wasn’t an effort to cover up bad decisions to avoid liability.”
He said GM’s own report into the scandal had identified “the GM nod and the GM salute – people look to others to do something, but no one accepts responsibility.”
GM has fired 15 people over the issue, which took a decade to be resolved and is linked to 13 deaths. But “99.999% of the people are the same,” said Murphy.
“A culture that allowed safety problems to fester for years will be hard to change,” he said. “The system failed and people died and it could have been prevented.”
Attorney Anton Valukas, who compiled GM’s report, also testified at the hearing. He said his report had uncovered serious cultural issues within the company that had led to the ignition issues. He said it had taken a lawyer representing a victim of the ignition issue to do a “simple thing” like compare two switches to find that GM had changed a faulty part without notifying anyone.
“No one goes back to review previous decisions,” he said.
GM has recalled 20m cars so far this year. The committee is investigating the recall of millions of Cobalts and other smaller cars where a fault with the ignition switch led to car engines switching off while in motion, a fault that also disabled airbags.
The company had operated in silos, information was not shared, Valukas said. There were circumstances where employees showed “sensitivity to the word ‘stalls’ and would stay away from using words that would force people to ask hard questions.”
But Valukas said his investigation had found no specific evidence of a cover-up. He said his firm, Jenner & Block, had been given “unfettered access” to GM employees and files, had conducted 350 interviews and reviewed 41m documents. Investigators had looked at whether people took steps to conceal what they knew from other individuals.
“Does a corporate culture of carelessness where life-saving information sits in boxes … is that not a cover-up?” asked Murphy.
“We did not find that,” Valuskas said.
Barra once again apologised for the fiasco, and said “the men and women of GM, the vast majority, come to work every day and want to do a good job … they want to do the right thing.”
But committee members seemed unconvinced. Diana DeGette, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said Valukas’s report “does not answer the key questions”.
“The report singles out many individuals at GM who made poor decisions or failed to act, but it doesn’t identify one individual in positions of high leadership who was responsible for these systemic failures,” she said.