DETROIT — General Motors has suspended two engineers with pay in the first disciplinary action linked to its delayed recall of more than 2 million small cars for a deadly ignition switch problem.
The move stems from GM’s internal investigation of the matter. At congressional hearings last week, lawmakers alleged that at least one company engineer tried to cover up the switch problem. GM CEO Mary Barra promised action against anyone deemed to have acted inappropriately.
GM, in a statement Thursday, said the engineers were placed on leave after a briefing from former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, whom GM has hired to figure out why it took more than a decade to recall the cars. GM says at least 13 people have been killed in crashes linked to the defective switch, but family members of those who died say the death toll is much higher.
Company spokesman Greg Martin would not identify the engineers.
“This is an interim step as we seek the truth about what happened,” Barra said in the statement. “It was a difficult decision, but I believe it is best for GM.”
GM is recalling 2.6 million compact cars worldwide, mostly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions, to replace the switches. The Justice Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are investigating GM’s slow response to the problem.
During a hearing last week, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., accused GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio of trying to cover up the switch problem. DeGiorgio said in a deposition last year for a lawsuit against GM that he never approved a change to the ignition switch. But McCaskill produced a document from 2006 showing he signed off on a replacement, but with the same part number. Failing to change a part number makes the part harder to track.
Lawmakers were also critical of a decision made within GM’s engineering ranks to not implement a proposed fix for the switch because it would be too costly and time-consuming.
Barra acknowledged at the hearing that DeGiorgio still works for GM. She called the failure to change the part number “unacceptable.” She also said if inappropriate decisions were made, GM would take action, including firing those involved.
On Thursday, McCaskill said in a statement that “it’s about time” GM took action.
“This marks a small step in the right direction for GM to take responsibility for poor — and possibly criminal —decisions that cost lives and put millions of American consumers at risk,” she said.
GM would not make DeGiorgio available for an interview. He did not return telephone messages left by The Associated Press. A recording on DeGiorgio’s work voicemail says he’s away from the office and refers business calls to two other GM employees.
Also Thursday, GM announced a program to recognize employees who speak up when they see something that could affect the safety of customers. “GM employees should raise safety concerns quickly and forcefully, and be recognized for doing so,” Barra said in the statement.
The ignition switches on the small cars can unexpectedly slip out of the “run” position to “accessory” or “off.” That shuts off the engine and the power-assisted steering and brakes and can cause drivers to lose control of their cars. It also disables the air bags. In many of the crashes, drivers have inexplicably veered off the road or into traffic.
Parts to begin fixing the cars are to start arriving at dealerships on Friday. But Barra has said it likely will take until October before all the cars are repaired.