NEW YORK — Soon after General Motors’ chief executive, Mary T. Barra, took her seat Wednesday before a Senate panel to answer questions about the company’s decadelong failure to fix a faulty switch linked to 13 deaths, she received a blunt message of what was to come.
GM, Senator Claire McCaskill said, had a “culture of coverup” that allowed an employee to lie under oath and discouraged quick action on fixing the defective switch that can accidentally cut off engine power and disable air bags. There was little to back up Barra’s contention that the company had changed its ways since emerging from bankruptcy in 2009, McCaskill said.
It took nine months, McCaskill said, before GM took any action once it was confronted in April 2013 with evidence in a lawsuit that the switch had quietly been changed sometime in 2006.
She cited the actions of a GM engineer, Ray DeGiorgio, who had testified in a court case that he knew nothing about the change in the switch. On Tuesday, the House panel presented a document showing he had signed off on it.
“He lied,” said McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is the committee’s chairwoman.
And she said the problem was with GM, for “a culture that allowed an engineer at GM to lie under oath, repeatedly lie under oath.”
Wednesday’s hearing had a much harsher tone than Tuesday’s hearing before a House panel. Senators more aggressively questioned Barra’s contention that the cars are safe to drive and doubted her statement that the company had moved from a culture of cost-cutting to one of safety and a focus on the consumer.
“If this is the new GM leadership, it’s pretty lacking,” said Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, later adding, “The culture that you are representing today is a culture of the status quo.”
Barra was inundated with questions about the legality of GM’s behavior, particularly whether the company intentionally withheld documents from lawyers representing families suing the automaker. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said he expected the company to come under intense scrutiny by the Justice Department.
“GM has a real exposure to criminal liability,” Blumenthal said. “I think it’s likely that GM will face prosecution.”
Barra repeatedly did not answer questions, saying either that she did not know or noting that an internal investigation was underway.
When McCaskill asked how many times GM had been sued over the switches, and how many cases had been settled with secrecy provisions, Barra said she did not know.
“You haven’t had a briefing from your general counsel about how many cases have been filed? You have not had that briefing?” McCaskill asked.
“I’ve been focused on getting parts to customers,” Barra replied.
The senators were easier on David J. Friedman, the acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Friedman said his agency was still struggling to understand the connection between bad ignition switches and the failure of the airbags to deploy.
“To be honest, it doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.