WASHINGTON — General Motors Co. has suspended two engineers with pay for their part in the company’s long failure to recall Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars equipped with a defective ignition switch linked to 13 deaths, the automaker said Thursday.
Chief executive Mary Barra said two unnamed engineers were placed on leave after a briefing by Anton Valukas, a former federal prosecutor leading a company investigation.
‘‘This is an interim step as we seek the truth about what happened,’’ Barra said. ‘‘It was a difficult decision, but I believe it is best for GM.’’
GM said it is expanding its ignition switch repair to include the replacement of lock cylinders for the 2.6 million recalled vehicles. Faulty lock cylinders can allow ignition keys to be removed while a vehicle is running, raising the risk of crashes.
The company said it knows of several hundred complaints of keys coming out of ignitions, and one case in which that resulted in a crash and an injury claim.
Barra faced a barrage of questions in congressional hearings last week about GM’s slow recall, which began more than a decade after the company first noticed problems.
The work of a GM engineer came in for especially harsh scrutiny after a lawmaker accused him of lying last year in a civil case brought by the family of a Cobalt crash victim.
Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, said flatly that Ray DeGiorgio had switched out unsafe ignition switches in several models in 2006 then ‘‘covered it up’’ by using the same part number for the new switch.
Documents GM turned over to Congress indicated DeGiorgio approved a design change in 2006 that made the ignition switch less susceptible to being inadvertently turned off, which makes a car more difficult to steer and to stop, while disabling its air bags.
Asked by McCaskill if DeGiorgio lied under oath, Barra hedged. ‘‘The data that’s been put in front of me indicates that, but I’m waiting for the full investigation,’’ she said.
The answer angered lawmakers, who called on Barra to fire the engineer. On Thursday, McCaskill called the suspensions long overdue.
For years, GM fielded reports about trouble with the ignition switch, but it took years for it to open a wide-ranging investigation. Early on, engineers proposed a fix, but it was rejected, apparently for cost reasons.
GM’s slow recall has triggered investigations by Congress, regulators, and federal prosecutors.
Barra, who took over as chief executive in mid-January, has said she is working to change the culture at GM. Last month, she announced creation of an executive position focused on vehicle safety. ‘‘GM must embrace a culture where safety and quality come first,’’ Barra said.