By MARCY GORDON
2014-06-18 06:01 AM
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Can Mary Barra fix General Motors?
That's likely to be the underlying theme of many of the questions thrown at the automaker's CEO when she's in front of Congress for a second time Wednesday. A House subcommittee is investigating GM's mishandled recall of millions of small cars for a deadly defect in ignition switches.
Lawmakers have signaled that they'll ask Barra whether more significant safety problems could be lurking within GM, and about the actions she's taking to make safety a priority at the nation's biggest automaker.
Following the small car recall, Barra authorized an internal investigation of the matter and a companywide safety review. The investigation found that a pattern of incompetence and neglect within GM were to blame for the delay. GM has issued 44 recalls this year that cover almost 18 million cars in the U.S. in an effort to convince customers that it's focused on safety. It says more are possible.
Anton Valukas, the former federal prosecutor who led GM's internal investigation, will also appear before the subcommittee. Panel members will likely ask Valukas to explain any differences in the findings of their investigation and his.
Here are some other questions lawmakers are likely to ask Barra and Valukas:
--Q: How does GM plan to change the cumbersome corporate culture laid bare by Valukas's report?
GM has linked the ignition-switch flaw to more than 50 crashes and at least 13 deaths. Valukas' investigation found that a pattern of incompetence and neglect within GM kept the problem concealed for 11 years. Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, the senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee, said this week she wants to know "what are they going to do to break this culture." Barra has acknowledged that the report drew a "deeply troubling" portrait of GM as an organization. According to her prepared remarks, Barra will tell the hearing that GM has restructured its process for making safety decisions "to raise it to the highest levels of the company," among a number of changes.
--Q: How will GM compensate victims of crashes linked to the faulty switches?
Barra says the company expects to begin processing victims' claims for compensation by Aug. 1. Lawmakers want details. GM has hired attorney Kenneth Feinberg to put a plan in place; he'll rule on who is eligible to receive compensation and will set the amounts. More than 300 claims have been filed. Feinberg has presided over compensation plans for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and other disasters.
--Q: Could the seeds of an even wider problem be lurking within GM's corporate structure?
Barra said at GM's annual shareholders meeting last week that a thorough review of the company's safety issues is nearly complete and hasn't turned up any other serious problems. She called the ignition-switch debacle a "unique series of mistakes" made by the company over many years. The news Monday of another huge recall for a problem similar to the ignition-switch defect has fueled lawmakers' skepticism. "This latest recall raises even more questions about just how pervasive safety problems are at GM," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said.
--Q: The question of a deep-rooted corporate weakness at GM potentially sowing the seeds of a wider problem also could be one for Valukas to address.
He and his team know GM thoroughly after interviewing 230 employees and reviewing 41 million documents. Valukas will tell the hearing that a single engineer set off the ignition-switch problems by approving switches that didn't meet GM specifications. He acknowledges that his report leaves open some questions, notably: whether there was civil and criminal culpability; whether GM will make the right decisions to stop this from happening again; and what specific crashes were caused by the ignition switch problem.
--Q: Do the actions that GM has taken so far appear sufficient?
In addition to making organizational changes, the company forced out 15 employees and disciplined five others for their role in the ignition-switch debacle. More than half the 15 were senior legal and engineering executives who failed to disclose the defect and were part of a "pattern of incompetence," according to Barra. The Justice Department likely will use Valukas's findings as a "road map" for questions and employees to pursue in its criminal investigation.
AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.