General Motors has placed two engineers on paid leave in relation to a global recall of 2.6 million cars linked to 13 deaths.
The move is part of an internal investigation into defective ignition switches that could cause the engine to shut down, disable airbags and make steering and braking more difficult when jostled, sometimes while the car was travelling at high speed. The engineers have been confirmed to be Ray DeGiorgio and Gary Altman.
The recalled cars include the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, and span model years 2003 to 2011. DeGiorgio designed the original switch for the 2003 Saturn Ion that went into production in August 2002 and versions of that switch were used in other GM models, including the Chevrolet Cobalt.
GM CEO Mary Barra, testifying last week before the US Congress, was challenged by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who said "a culture of cover-up" caused DeGiorgio to deliver untruthful testimony about his knowledge of the defective ignition switch during his deposition last year for a lawsuit related to a fatal 2010 crash in Georgia.
The defective switch was redesigned in 2006, according to GM. DeGiorgio said in his deposition that the Ion/Cobalt switch was "one of my first ignition switches" and denied knowing of the change, but US congressional investigators produced an internal GM document showing DeGiorgio had signed off on the change in April 2006.
"He lied" about his knowledge of the defective part, McCaskill said. Barra said she had seen indications of that as well, but she wanted to let the company probe run its course over the next two months. Reuters has reported that repeated attempts to contact DeGiorgio have been unsuccessful.
Altman was the program engineering manager on the Ion and Cobalt and in a deposition in the same 2013 lawsuit he was asked by the plaintiffs' attorney whether GM had made a business decision in 2005 not to fix the switch. He replied, "That is what happened, yes." Reuters said Altman did not return a phone call yesterday seeking his comment.
Barra said yesterday that the engineers were placed on leave after she was briefed by Anton Valukas, chairman of law firm Jenner & Block who is heading GM's internal investigation. "This is an interim step as we seek the truth about what happened," Barra said in a statement.
Some members of Congress have expressed interest in calling GM engineers, including DeGiorgio, to testify at hearings that will likely come this spring or summer.
"There are still many unanswered questions about who else was involved and the extent of the breakdown," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy said in a joint statement.
GM also said yesterday it will take a higher-than-expected charge of $1.3bn (£770m) in the first quarter, primarily to cover the cost of recall-related repairs and courtesy transportation, compared with the previously announced $750m charge.
The automaker said US dealers, in addition to replacing ignition switches on the recalled cars, will replace ignition lock cylinders because ignition keys can be removed while the engine is running. The issue could cause a vehicle to roll away and crash.
GM said it is aware of "several hundred complaints" of keys coming out of ignitions on the recalled cars, and at least one rollaway incident and crash that caused one injury, but no reported fatalities.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is fining GM $7,000 a day for missing an April 3 deadline to provide information about the recall. The regulator said on Tuesday that the automaker had not responded to over a third of its questions by the deadline.