Still waiting for answers from GM

June 18, 2014

Elizabeth Schulte describes how GM put its bottom line over the lives of drivers.

THEY'RE STILL waiting. Almost four months after General Motors announced a recall, and more than seven years since the crash that killed his stepdaughter Natasha Weigel, Ken Rimer is still waiting for GM to admit it caused her death.

"It's mind-boggling," Rimer told NBC News. "They had the information, and it just sat there." Weigel was killed along with another teenager when their 2005 Chevy Cobalt went off the road in St. Croix County, Wis. An investigation showed the ignition switch was in the "accessory" position at the time of the crash--meaning the car didn't have power at the moment of impact: no brakes, no steering, no airbags.

GM CEO Mary Barr will testify again June 18 before a House subcommittee investigating why the auto company failed to identify the deadly flaw in the ignition mechanisms of several car models--which suddenly leaves drivers without power in the middle of driving.

In February, GM announced the recall of some 2.6 million cars with the faulty ignition part, which the company linked to at least 13 deaths and 54 crashes. The actual number, however, could be many times more. Just days before the hearing, the company announced that the recall of more 3.4 million cars, because of key and ignitions problems, bringing the number of GM cars recalled because of ignition issues to 6.5 million cars just this year.

One of GM's defective ignition mechanisms on display
One of GM's defective ignition mechanisms on display

IF THIS hearing is anything like Barr's last appearance in April, victims of GM's negligence and their friends and families will have a lot more waiting to do if they're looking for GM officials to take responsibility. During that hearing, Barra refused to answer questions, even as a member of Congress pointed out that company officials knew about the defect a decade ago, but deemed it was too costly and time-consuming to fix.

GM recently announced that it fired 15 employees, including at least three senior corporate lawyers, and disciplined five others--but the company has yet to implicate any top-level executives or directors. Making an example of some mid-level people flies in the face of the results of the report released on June 5, which reveals not just a few bad actors at GM, but a company culture of intense bureaucracy and secrecy, where one hand never knew--or cared, it appears--what the other was doing.

According to the 325-page internal report, written by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, GM employees were given official training about how to write about safety issues:

A PowerPoint presentation from 2008 warned employees to write "smart," and not to use "judgmental adjectives and speculation." Employees were given a number of words to avoid, with suggested replacements:
-- "Problem = Issue, Condition, Matter"
-- "Safety = Has Potential Safety Implications"
-- "Defect = Does not perform to design"

In an almost unbelievable display of contempt for the people who have died in their vehicles, the report also recounts how employees were told, in a supposed attempt at humor, not to use phrases like "rolling sarcophagus" and "Kevorkianesque."

But as the story of GM's unfolds, it is very easy to believe that someone at GM thought this was a joke. Valukas' investigation also showed:

In addition to being trained on how to write, a number of GM employees reported that they did not take notes at all at critical safety meetings, because they believed GM lawyers did not want such notes taken. No witness was able to identify a lawyer who gave such an instruction, no lawyer reported having given such an instruction, and we have found no documents or e-mails reflecting such an instruction. The no-notes direction, however, reached the status of an urban myth that was followed, an instruction passed from GM employee to GM employee over the years.

And while there were many committees and many discussions, nothing came out of them. The report states:

We repeatedly heard from witnesses that they flagged the issue, proposed a solution, and the solution died in a committee or with some other ad hoc group exploring the issue. But determining the identity of any actual decision-maker was impenetrable. No single person owned any decision. Indeed, it was often difficult to determine who sat on the committees or what they considered, as there are rarely minutes of meetings.

One witness described the GM phenomenon of avoiding responsibility as the "GM salute," a crossing of the arms and pointing outward toward others, indicating that the responsibility belongs to someone else, not me...Similarly, Mary Barra described a phenomenon known as the "GM nod." The GM nod, Barra described, is when everyone nods in agreement to a proposed plan of action, but then leaves the room with no intention to follow through, and the nod is an empty gesture.

Empty gestures--that about sums it up.

THE INTERNAL report is also revealing for what it doesn't include. It pretty much absolves top-level managers of all responsibility. This includes Barra, who was supposed to be the new, fresh face of GM management. But Barra, who has worked at GM for more than 30 years, is hardly fresh--and understands that she can't let a little thing like ethics get in the way of propping up the bottom line.

An investigation into GM could drag out for more than a year. Victims' families will likely have to wait until at least August for the company to begin announcing the number of fatalities it admits it's responsible for, and begin discussing a compensation plan. GM has hired Kenneth Feinberg to handle the compensation. Feinberg also handled the Gulf oil spill for BP, so it's clear GM went for a lawyer that would protect its assets to the maximum extent possible.

If the thick web of lies that preceded revelations about GM wrongdoing is any indication, GM won't do anything unless there's a spotlight on it. And no one should be satisfied with any investigation that GM organizes of itself.

Family and friends of those who have died as a result of GM's negligence are organizing to make sure GM doesn't simply sweep their loved ones' stories under the rug. Some of them organized a protest of GM's annual shareholders' meeting in Detroit on June 10. Several will attend the hearing in Washington, holding photographs of their loved ones.

Jayne and Ken Rimer are struggling just to get GM officials to recognize that their child died as a result of its car's defect. According to GM, she "does not count," because she died in the backseat, and the company is only counting front-seat deaths, when an airbag didn't deploy.

"I just want you to acknowledge that my daughter died in your car," said Jayne.

The problems at GM won't be solved with internal investigations or a series of hearings on the company "culture." The top CEOs have to be made to pay for the decisions they made and the culture they fostered--sacrificing drivers' lives to protect their bottom line.

We shouldn't let GM out of the spotlight until that happens.

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