• Apr 2nd 2014 at 8:43AM
  • 36
It was only two months ago that Mary Barra, freshly crowned as the new General Motors chief executive officer, visited Washington DC as an esteemed guest of First Lady Michelle Obama for the State of the Union address.

The biggest news that emerged from the hearing was that GM has retained attorney Kenneth Feinberg.

On Tuesday, Barra returned to the Capitol under more strained circumstances.

For more than two contentious hours, she took questions from members of a House of Representatives subcommittee investigating General Motors years-long delay in initiating a recall of millions of vehicles that contained a defect that has killed at least 13 people.

Why did GM accept faulty ignition switches that were below the company's set specfications? Why did GM learn about the problem in 2001 yet take no action until 2014? Will GM compensate victims' families even though the company's bankruptcy may limit its liability?

Those were a few of the questions members of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee asked. Few concrete answers were forthcoming. For her part, Barra sidestepped most of the questions, saying she wouldn't have information needed to answer them until an internal review is completed. David Friedman, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, testified after Barra.

The biggest news that emerged from the hearing was that General Motors has retained attorney Kenneth Feinberg to advise the company on its civil and legal responsibilities. He has made a career of resolving disputes and serving in a 'fixer' role, serving as the chief of the federal government's September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, as an administrator of compensation fund for victims of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and a similar fund for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. Barra, who has been GM's CEO since January but been with the company since 1980, expects to meet with Feinberg on Friday, and have a concrete plan within the next 30-60 days.
Yet Barra would not say for certain Tuesday that GM would compensate the victims at all. Despite repeated questions from Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Barra did not outline the company's intentions.

"I assume GM is hiring (Feinberg) to help identify the size of claims and then compensate the victims? Is that right," DeGette asked. "Is GM willing to put together some kind of a compensation fund for these victims that Mr. Feinberg will then administer?"

"We've hired him to help assess the situation," Barra replied.

"So really, there's no money involved at this point," DeGette asked.

"We have just hired him and will begin work with him Friday," Barra said.

"So really, you hired him and announced it today, but he has no ability to compensate victims," DeGette asked.

"We will work with him to determine what the right course of action is," Barra said.

"Might that include victim compensation?" DeGette asked.

"We haven't made any decisions on that," Barra said.

Verbal volleys like these went back and forth all afternoon, with Barra largely saying she needed to consult with Feinberg or wait until a final report from former U.S. attorney Anton Valukas is produced before she can provide specifics to the committee or a worried public. But little headway was made.

For all GM's statements about transparency since the ignition-switch recall began in February, it was difficult to find tangible evidence of that Tuesday. When asked by Rep. Peter Tonko (D-N.Y.) whether GM would share Valukas' full report with both the subcommittee and public, Barra would only say that GM would share what was "appropriate."

Family members of the 13 victims killed in defective cars sat in the rear of the chambers Tuesday, many either holding pictures of their loved ones or placing the pictures along a rear mantle. Earlier in the day, they stood outside the Capitol building and asked that Congress hold General Motors accountable for its failure to recall the vehicles in a timely manner. Documents released by the committee earlier this week showed that in March 2005, GM cited "tooling cost and piece price are too high" as reasons to avoid fix the part. On Tuesday, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said the per-vehicle costs associated with the fix were about $2.

"Rather than fixing the problem, they chose to keep producing the Cobalt with the ill-fated ignition switch and selling it to an unsuspecting public," said Ken Rimer, the stepfather of Natasha Weigel, who died from in a Cobalt crash on Nov. 4, 2006. "Needless deaths and injuries, especially when an inexpensive and easy fix was available, should not be the cost of doing business to auto manufacturers."

Barra is scheduled to testify in another hearing related to the ignition-switch defect Wednesday. The Senate Commerce Committee hearing begins at 10 a.m. On Thursday, GM is scheduled to submit its written responses to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for another related investigation.

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at peter.bigelow@teamaol.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      I recall President Obummer making a speech at a GM plant praising himself about taking our money and bailing them out. Where is he now? Crickets.......
        • 1 Year Ago
        I have no trust in President Obama. He is a "surface" President. Never gets in the details and the man has a very hard time telling the truth - among other faults a leader shouldn't have. However, in this case, I don't believe he knew about this cover-up at GM or for that matter, I don't believe the man even knows how to use a wrench. Jobs were saved at our expense - can't argue that. GM used tax payer assistance poorly. What goes around comes around.
          • 1 Year Ago
          If your point is that Obama is too ignorant and detached to have gotten involved in this, I guess I have to agree with you ......
      • 1 Year Ago
      I actually feel kind of sorry for Mary Barra, but I understand why she had to be there while the politicians are all grandstanding. I would compare her position like buying a used car, then having to answer why the car was involved in an accident before you bought it. I think the bigger question is to why haven't they subpoenaed Rick Wagoner. After all, HE was the CEO of GM from June 2000 to May 2009. If you go by the "buck stops here" it is he that should be fined and should forfeit some of that $10000000 golden parachute exit package.
        Cool Disco Dan
        • 1 Year Ago
        I found their uppity treatment of her disgusting. They act like she was there when it happened and she should have all the answers. When like you say they should be dragging the people in charge at the time infront of them.
        • 1 Year Ago
        Finally a rational nonreactionary post. Barra may have been at GM but was not necessarily in a position to make or influence decisions regarding the parts and recalls. She's essentially the keeper of the record of someone else's decisions. Rep. DeGette was trying to make a name for herself with seeing how many times she could ask the same question and maybe get the answer she wanted. It's a good move by new GM to hire a lawyer to look at how liable new GM is for old GM's errors. I still think the claims against old GM will end up going through the bankruptcy court. New GM is going to have to do something for PR reasons but it should be done under the structure of the law, not the emotion of the moment. As I recall one of the contributory factors in one of the auto deaths was not wearing seat belts. That decision had nothing to do with the ignition switch. I've had a car cut off while in traffic going 65 mph but I was used to driving nonpower steering and brakes so I was able to control it (also old non-electric tech, 1976 AMC Hornet).
          • 1 Year Ago
          The same Diana DeGette that during gun control/magazine ban debates, didn't understand that rifle magazines can be reloaded and though they were useless after being emptied once. Not gonna take anything she says or does seriously.
        • 1 Year Ago
        Then you have to broach the issue of where are the real bottomline runners of the company, the shareholders. No chance of getting those folk in that position. Wallstreet is made of Angels and people who actually do things are the devil.
      James John
      • 1 Year Ago
      Passengers can die as long as it saves GM money.
      • 1 Year Ago
      To me the real issue is the arrogance and of the hypocrisy of all of the politicians that spoke with Barra yesterday. Interrupting constantly and not letting the witness speak, and acting knowledgeable about engineering and the automotive industry. GM has some fault here and a lot of fault if indeed there was a cover up, however individuals need to understand that automobiles are machines with many moving parts and systems. They should should be understood completely by their driver, so they can make the safest decisions when an issue does arise whether that be sudden acceleration or loss of power.
        • 1 Year Ago
        You clearly do not understand how this works. They have 5 minutes to ask their questions, when Barra is taking forever to spit out the same "its under investigation" line they are going to interrupt her as they have a time limit. Also, a couple panel members actually were engineers and they have done many cases like GM's before, so yes they are knowledgeable about engineering.
      • 1 Year Ago
      I could at least understand if the fault in question was buried deep in some high tech system, but something as stupid and obvious as an ignition key easily bumped to off? Come on! GM deserves whatever pain it gets for this. As to Barra, it's clear she was promoted when Dandy Dan saw a huge storm approaching. As an old navy guy. he knew when to abandon ship and let every man (or woman, in this case,) fend for his or her self. Good luck, Mary. I hope you can change GM, which desperately needs a new start method.
      Cadillac Jack
      • 1 Year Ago
      To make this list shorter and less confusing GM needs to list only their cars and trucks not currently under recalls.
      • 1 Year Ago
      She was probably brought in because she is a woman and thus might get some sympathy and was promised I nice package once this is over and they fire her.
        • 1 Year Ago
        That's what it looks like.
      • 1 Year Ago
      GM obviously has not learned from Ford and Toyota: better to lose few millions to the victims instead of losing billions later down the road.
        • 1 Year Ago
        Toyota has Friends in Washington. Ford has a halo. The politicians enjoyed chewing on GM 6 years ago. They want desperately to go back & so do others. That's the only difference here.
      • 1 Year Ago
      I'm not sure what GM can do to stop this turd from hitting the fan, othab quick, decisive action, not stalling for an internal investigation. They've already had over a decade to figure out how to fix or spin this. Instead they've stalled and covered up the problem. I guess the lawyers need more time to create plausible deniability.
      • 1 Year Ago
      General Motors + US Government = Major Fail. Gov knew about this a few years ago and blew it off. Obamacare, IRS and NSA run with equal aplomb.
      • 1 Year Ago
      only when a victim is clear headed, 120% sober, whilst performing evasive maneuver the ignition switch cause the engine shut off resulting in the driver not able to avoid accident resulting fatality. its very hard to prove, plus that drunken girl... yikes
      Robert Ryan
      • 1 Year Ago
      This sounds a lot worse than the Toyota debacle. GM needs a lot better management
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