WASHINGTON — General Motors chief executive Mary Barra deflected a barrage of questions Tuesday on Capitol Hill about the automaker's failure to fix a deadly ignition-switch flaw, telling lawmakers that she was unaware of the decade-old problem until early this year.
While she repeatedly apologized for a defect that GM has blamed for the deaths of at least 13 motorists, Barra repeatedly ducked lawmakers' sometimes testy queries, saying she is awaiting the results of an internal investigation.
Barra took pains to make a distinction between the cost-conscious "old GM" — which, she admitted, missed a series of red flags and may have engineered a coverup — and the post-bankruptcy "new GM," which Barra said is focused on customer safety.
"I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced," Barra told a House Energy and Commerce Committee investigative panel. "I can tell you that we will find out."
Barra, who has worked for GM since 1980 and held a variety of senior positions before becoming CEO in January, said during the hearing that she did not know of the problem until Jan. 31 of this year.
"I did know in December that there was an issue with the Cobalt. I did not know it was an ignition issue," she said
In her opening statement, Barra announced that Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who has helped mete out payments to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and to victims of BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, had been hired by GM to "explore and evaluate options in its response to families of accident victims."
The move suggests that GM expects to face additional claims on behalf of people killed or injured in the recalled vehicles. Feinberg said Barra has asked him to examine options for compensating victims of the defect, which could include a broad settlement fund.
"Over the next 60 days, we hope to propose some objective claims-resolution approach that meets the needs of the victims, the company and the public interest," Feinberg said in an interview.
GM has recalled 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts and other small vehicles because of the faulty switches. Lawmakers said GM could have fixed the defective switch for as little as 57 cents per vehicle. Still, the automaker waited more than a decade to issue a recall, despite mounting evidence of a problem, including 133 complaints to dealers and numerous legal settlements paid to families of people who perished in related accidents.
Barra's testimony seemed to do little to mollify lawmakers, many of whom appeared to have scoured the thousands of pages of documents the company submitted to congressional investigators. One after another, they grilled her about questionable company decisions, such as installing switches that did not meet GM's technical specifications and quietly approving a new switch design in 2006 without assigning a new part number or initiating a recall.
The panel also heard from David Friedman, the acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which also failed for years to recognize the problem. Friedman pointed the finger at GM for not providing regulators with timely information that could have led federal regulators to order a recall.
Throughout nearly two hours of testimony, Barra remained even-tempered and contrite. But she was also tight-lipped and, at times, evasive.
Asked how often the automaker uses parts that do not match its specifications, Barra said the company always aims to use parts that are safe and reliable. Parts that do not meet technical requirements, she said, are not necessarily defective.
"What you just answered is gobbledygook," shot back Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.
"I think it's obvious," he said later, "that GM has some real questions that they've not done a very good job answering today."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.