GM accused of 'criminal' behavior over ignition fault

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Senators accused General Motors of "criminal deception" over a decade-long ignition problem linked to 13 deaths, as the US automaker's boss faced a second straight day of congressional anger Wednesday.

Defending her company's battered reputation, chief executive Mary Barra repeated her pledge that GM will be forthcoming with results of a sweeping internal investigation into what led it to keep using ignition switches it knew were faulty for years, then change the parts without alerting the public or regulators.

"We will share anything and everything related to vehicle safety," Barra assured members of a Senate subcommittee on consumer protection.

But she received a tongue-lashing from lawmakers less than mollified by her pledges of transparency.

They instead noted that GM has yet to sack anyone over the debacle, despite its own evidence that the defects were posing a deadly hazard.

The manufacturer is under fire for not recalling Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other GM models fitted with the switches.

Thirteen deaths have been linked to the problems, and since February GM has recalled 2.4 million vehicles to fix them.

Senator Kelly Ayotte zeroed in on revelations that when GM changed its faulty ignition switches in 2006, it kept the identification number for the new part identical to that of the original switch, a decision that may have allowed the company to avoid a costly product recall.

"I don't see this as anything but criminal," Ayotte fumed. "This is criminal deception." Barra acknowledged her own surprise that the part number was not changed.

"I want to understand why those actions were taken," she said.

Lawmakers demanded to know why GM did not act sooner, and challenged Barra over her insistence she did not know about the problem until January, when she took over at GM, despite having worked there for three decades including several years in management roles.

Barra apologised repeatedly, but she dodged tough questions by insisting on waiting for the findings of the internal probe.

Subcommittee chair Senator Claire McCaskill, a former prosecutor, blasted GM in her opening statement, accusing it of fostering a "culture of cover-up that allowed an engineer at GM to lie under oath, repeatedly." She cited a court deposition last April in which GM engineer Ray DeGeorgio said he never approved the ignition switch changes. McCaskill pointed to internal documents that show DeGeorgio signed off on the change in 2006.

"The more I hear and see in these documents... the more convinced I am that GM has a real exposure to criminal liability," Senator Richard Blumenthal warned.

The faulty ignitions can abruptly switch into "accessory" or "off" position while in drive, especially when the car is jolted.

That can turn off its electrical systems, including safety airbags, preventing them from inflating in a collision.

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