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US criminal inquiry into GM reported

GM says faulty ignition switches in some of its models have been linked to 31 accidents and 13 fatalities.

AP/File

GM says faulty ignition switches in some of its models have been linked to 31 accidents and 13 fatalities.

NEW YORK — The Justice Department has begun a criminal investigation into the decadelong failure by General Motors to address deadly safety problems in some of its cars before announcing a massive recall last month, according to a person briefed on the matter.

The preliminary inquiry by federal prosecutors in New York is expected to center on whether GM, the nation’s largest automaker, failed to comply with laws requiring timely disclosure of vehicle defects.

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The action is the latest in a widening series of investigations of GM’s handling of faulty ignition switches in its Chevrolet Cobalt sedan and other cars that the company says are linked to 31 accidents and 13 deaths.

On Tuesday, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said he would ask Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, to hold hearings on a panel that oversees consumer product safety. The hearings are expected to begin within weeks, a spokesman for Rockefeller said.

A House committee on Monday said it would conduct its own investigation and hearings into events leading to GM’s recall of 1.6 million vehicles, and sent letters demanding extensive records to the company and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

NHTSA is also investigating GM’s actions since the company first learned of possible defects in its ignition systems in 2004. And GM has hired outside lawyers to lead its own internal review of why it failed to fix or replace switches tied to a mounting toll accidents.

It is rare but not unprecedented for the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against an auto company for how it handles recalls.

The department, for example, is currently in discussions with Toyota about settling a four-year criminal investigation into how the Japanese automaker disclosed complaints related to unintended acceleration of its vehicles.

The GM inquiry, while still in its early stages, reflects the escalating reaction among government officials to the company’s admission to NHTSA on Feb. 24 that it knew of problems with ignition switches at various times over the past 10 years but never moved to fix or replace the parts.

When asked on Tuesday about the criminal inquiry, a GM spokesman, Greg Martin, declined to comment.

One safety advocate said the Justice Department investigation is likely to center on whether GM withheld information from regulators in violation of the Safety Act.

“It’s high time for the Justice Department to conduct criminal investigations of automakers who conceal defects and people die,” said Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington.

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