Senators grilled GM’s general counsel Michael Millikin during a hearing Thursday after an internal investigation released last month found that his legal team knew of safety concerns linked to a faulty ignition switch for several years before recalls were announced in 2014.
“How in the world, in the aftermath of this report, did Michael Milliken keep his job?” asked Sen. Claire McCaskill, chair of the Subcommittee on consumer protection, product safety, and insurance, which held the hearing. “It is very clear that the culture of lawyering up and Whac-A-Mole to minimize liability in individual lawsuits killed innocent customers of general motors.”
“The failure of this legal department is stunning,” she said.
CEO Mary Barra, making her fourth hearing appearance on Capitol Hill since the company began massive recalls this year related to the ignition switch problem that has been linked to at least 13 deaths, was largely praised by Senators for her handling of the scandal, which erupted just weeks after she assumed the post.
Thursday’s hearing came in the wake of a New York Times report that found that GM withheld information from regulators inquiring about fatal accidents. Citing documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that GM “repeatedly found a way not to answer the simple question from regulators of what led to a crash.” In some cases, GM said it had not conducted an assessment and in others it simply declined to provide an answer. In another case, the company cited attorney-client privilege.
The hearing in Congress aimed to focus on accountability in corporate culture, as lawmakers aim to keep corporations from covering up safety concerns. Three senators introduced a bill on Wednesday that would impose criminal penalties for corporate executives who hide product dangers.
Milliken says he was not informed about the safety concerns until February of this year, and Barra defended her decision not to fire him. “He is a man of high integrity,” she said.
Following the internal investigation last month, GM fired 15 employees and Barra blamed “a pattern of management deficiencies and misjudgments.” But she said the probe found no deliberate cover-up by the company.
The Justice Department is separately investigating why it took the company more than a decade to address the problem.
Barra and Millikin were joined at the hearing by Anton Valukas, who headed up the internal report, and Rodney O’Neal, the head of the ignition switch supplier, Delphi. Kenneth Feinberg, who is administering GM’s compensation payments, also took questions from lawmakers about the compensation program.