General Motors CEO Mary Barra evaded a series of pointed questions on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, as members of a House panel searched for answers into why the company waited about 10 years before taking drastic action to fix a defective ignition switch now linked to 13 deaths.
Many lawmakers implied that General Motors must have known it had a serious problem, pointing out over 130 related consumer complaints from June 2003 to June 2012, litigation in which confidential settlements were reached, and a move in 2006 made by a GM engineer that slightly improved the switch without also changing the identification number. “Do you think it was a cover-up or it was sloppy work?” charged Representative Marsha Blackburn, the Republican from Tennessee.
But Barra repeatedly dodged that line of questioning, telling lawmakers GM would be able to explain more about the delays after it completed its internal investigation opened a few weeks ago by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas. Barra told the committee she found out about the defective ignition switch on Jan. 31, after an executive committee made the recall decision. The slow response, she said, was “unacceptable.”
The chief executive officer also sounded a note of contrition, however, apologizing to the families of those killed in GM cars, many of whom were in the audience, and announcing that the company would look into giving compensation to those affected. She said GM had hired Kenneth Feinberg as a consultant, who has handled high-profile compensation issues related to 9/11, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Boston Marathon bombing. “We are committed to our customers, and we are going to work very hard to do the right thing,” she said.
Barra insisted the company’s culture had changed since this problem had been discovered. “Today, if there is a safety issue, we take action,” said Barra. “If we know there is a defect, we do not look at the cost associated with it, we look at the speed at which we can fix the issue.” Representative Bruce Braley, the Democrat from Iowa, thought that answer was ridiculous, showing for the cameras a 20-year-old promotional screwdriver with the words “safety comes first at GM” etched on it. “Isn’t it true that throughout the history of the company, it has made representations like this to the driving public as a way of inducing them to buy your vehicles?” asked Braley, who added that his son Paul owned a Chevy Cobalt, one of the models recalled. Barra responded that they had over 18 vehicles with a five-star crash rating.
Despite the somber atmosphere, Representative Lee Terry, the Republican from Nebraska, cracked a joke as he began his testimony near the end of the proceedings. “I’m sorry for being late, but my plane was canceled for mechanical reasons, probably an ignition switch,” he said. “U.S. Air.”
Terry later apologized, telling TIME it was an “off-handed comment” that detracted from the substance of the hearing.