General Motors CEO Mary Barra was grilled by lawmakers over a lethal defect in vehicle ignition switches once again Wednesday, expressing regret for lax oversight, while promising skeptical lawmakers that quality controls had improved across the company.
Lawmakers on the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations criticized GM managers for fostering a "culture of secrecy" that allowed knowledge of defective engine parts to remain concealed within the company for more than a decade.
Faults in the ignition switches have been linked to 56 accidents in which car engines and air bags suddenly switched off while the car was in motion. GM has admitted faulty switches played a role in 13 deaths, though advocates have claimed more lost their lives.
Barra, who had already appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April, called the findings of an internal investigation into the ignition switch defects "brutally tough and deeply troubling."
"For those of us who have dedicated our lives to this company, it is enormously painful to have our shortcomings laid out so vividly," Barra said in her opening statement to the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. She said the company has since fired 15 employees and beefed up its staff of safety investigators.
Skeptical lawmakers pressed Barra on the extent of the fixes. "You mentioned 15 were fired," Rep. Timothy Murphy (R-Penn.) said to Barra, "99.999 percent, if my math is right, of the people [still at GM] are the same ... If you haven't changed the people, how do you change the culture?"
The questioning narrowed in on the role of senior managers, including Barra, who claimed to have no knowledge of the faulty switches until 2014. "That the most senior GM executives may not have known about a defect that caused more than a dozen deaths is frankly alarming and does not absolve them of responsibility for this tragedy," said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.). The company's "culture of secrecy" must be changed, she added.
Lawmakers also raised concerns about GM's successive waves of recalls. GM has issued 44 recalls for 20 million vehicles worldwide. GM says defects related to more recent recall notices have not been linked to any known deaths or injuries. Nonetheless, Rep. Murphy called the most recent call, on Monday, "hauntingly similar to the Cobalt ignition switch recall."
Barra said GM was currently preparing a compensation fund for victims families that would begin processing claims by Aug. 1st. "I want this terrible experience permanently etched in our collective memories," Barra said.