Mary Barra received a letter warning of steering problems associated with certain models of the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion.

An investigation into ignition-switch defects in several General Motors vehicles revealed Friday the company's current CEO knew of trouble with the models as early as 2011.

One of the two Congressional subcommittees probing GM released an email that showed Mary Barra received a letter warning of steering problems associated with certain models of the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, two of the cars recalled in February because they contained a deadly flaw.

It remains unclear how – or if – the steering problem mentioned in the email relates to the ignition-switch defect, which has caused at least 13 deaths and 31 crashes. Rep. Fred Upton, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, cautioned "there's much left to examine."

In a written statement issued Friday night, GM spokesperson Kevin Kelly said the steering issue was "completely separate" from the ignition-related recalls. "The email in no way contradicts Ms. Barra's previous statements or testimony before the House or Senate subcommittees," he said.

The email in question, sent on Oct. 3, 2011 by GM engineer Terry Wojchowski, warned Barra the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had upgraded an investigation of Saturn Ions over a "heightened concern that a sudden loss of electric power steering could cause crashes."

At the time, the federal safety agency had 846 related complaints on file, and the email says GM had almost 3,500 of its own regarding that problem. While the link is not definitive, a sudden loss of electric power steering would be one symptom of the ignition-switch problem, in which the switch inadvertently moves from the "run" to "accessory" positions, and turns off the engine, electrical systems such as steering, and safety systems like airbags.

Barra testified before Congress that she did not know of the ignition-switch problem until January of this year.

"This situation has been evolving," Wojchowski wrote to Barra. "We will meet and understand the latest data."

It is unclear if or when that meeting took place, and Barra's response is not part of the documents released by the House subcommittee Friday.

NHTSA regulators argued the Ion should have been included in an earlier recall to fix steering failures in more than one million Chevy Cobalts and Pontiac G5s in 2010. But the email says, "GM had resisted the Cobalt and G5 recall, saying that even if the power assist suddenly failed, the driver would be able to control the car, although it would take more effort to turn the wheel."

Earlier this month, Barra testified before Congress that she did not know of the ignition-switch problem until January of this year, when she became CEO. In 2011, she served as GM's executive vice president of global product development.

Two Congressional committees, the Department of Justice and NHTSA have all launched investigations of GM's response to the ignition-switch problem in recent weeks, searching for answers on why the company, which knew about the fatal flaw in 2001, took no action to recall more than 2.5 million affected vehicles until this February.

"Mary Barra has approached the situation with a desire to uncover the truth and be very forthright," said Karl Brauer, a senior industry analyst with Kelley Blue Book. "We don't know how close she was to any of these problems in her prior roles. We'll have to wait until all the documents are reviewed before making any final judgments."

Five US senators said General Motors has conducted itself in a "fraudulent and reprehensible" manner.

Earlier Friday, five US senators said General Motors has conducted itself in a "fraudulent and reprehensible" manner, and urged the US Justice Department to act on behalf of those injured and killed by the defective ignition switches.

The five Democrats sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking that the Department of Justice intervene in pending civil actions against the automaker on behalf of victims and require the company to establish a fund that would compensate victims.

The number of lawsuits related to the ignition-switch defect is not immediately known, although NHTSA asked the company to provide that information as part of its response to a query that was supposed to be answered by April 3.

A central concern expressed by the senators is the possibility GM's 2009 bankruptcy would shield the company from legal responsibility for its defective products.

"Like many Americans, we were appalled and astonished by GM's recent admission that it knew of these disabling defects and their disastrous effects well before the 2009 reorganization," read the letter, signed by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sen. Ed Markey, (D-MA), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA). "Their deliberate concealment caused continuing death and damage, and it constituted a fraud on the bankruptcy court that approved its reorganization. It also criminally deceived the United States government and the public."

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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  • 60 Comments
      behinddawindow
      • 8 Months Ago
      I'm surprised at no mention of Mr. Rick Wagnor the Former CEO during that whole recall debacle.
      Don Dada
      • 8 Months Ago
      SMDH.
      Jmaister
      • 8 Months Ago
      So why does everyone want to pin this on Mary Barra? what about the ppl in charge for the last 10 years? or is it truly her sin alone cuz she oversees the production?
      Firefly
      • 8 Months Ago
      Well the beans have burned now...
      knightrider_6
      • 8 Months Ago
      And yet the CEO who covered up this whole thing will never be held accountable. Don't you love capitalism?
        churchmotor
        • 8 Months Ago
        @knightrider_6
        Sure beats the alternative. Communism. They would tell you to go eff yourself and never fix or acknowledge the problem, and you would have zero recourse.
          knightrider_6
          • 8 Months Ago
          @churchmotor
          Just like the old GM told its customers to go eff themselves?
          l_uz
          • 8 Months Ago
          @churchmotor
          A free market does not save companies that tell people to go eff themselves. We don't have a truly free market, you're just trying to blame the free market by calling it capitalism. It's all a lie. Capitalism is a lie being told by people that want to stop freedom in the market.
          purrpullberra
          • 8 Months Ago
          @churchmotor
          Communism isn't THE alternative.
        l_uz
        • 8 Months Ago
        @knightrider_6
        There is no such thing as capitalism, that's just the lie you tell yourself.
        Mack
        • 8 Months Ago
        @knightrider_6
        You don't know what capitalism is.
        kb
        • 8 Months Ago
        @knightrider_6
        You think that's capitalism? LoL, you're an idiot.
        Michaele
        • 8 Months Ago
        @knightrider_6
        Let me guess - You're a professional m0r0n and not an amateur fool?
      knightrider_6
      • 8 Months Ago
      I love how AutoBlog has tried to spin a vaguely related email into a sensational headline to generate more page views. In the article they acknowledge that the power steering issue is probably not related to the ignition recall.
        purrpullberra
        • 8 Months Ago
        @knightrider_6
        I disagree, the ignition system would've come under scrutiny as a contributing factor. Only bad intentions would've missed that problem.
      Don Dada
      • 8 Months Ago
      This company was not worth saving. What a bunch of crooks, from top to bottom.
      jeanreno
      • 8 Months Ago
      Rather push a ford than die in a GM!
      Eta Carinae
      • 8 Months Ago
      I see the majority of the commenters looked straight at the title and skipped reading the article.....typical AB bloggers..
        Michaele
        • 8 Months Ago
        @Eta Carinae
        I learned a long time ago not to expect the average reader to be able to comprehend what is in front of their eyes. And to expect them to absorb facts and evaluate something before they open their mouths? Hahahahaha!
        Neez
        • 8 Months Ago
        @Eta Carinae
        Yea, i actually read the article. People on the internet and mass society in general just believe what they want to believe. No objectivity at all. Steering problem is a stretch to ignition problem. If the car was thrown into ACC, most people would attribute the loss of power steering to the engine cutting out as well. It's doubtful that people are just like, "oh crap my steering went out" when the engine stops as well.
      CarFan
      • 8 Months Ago
      What a far-reaching headline. Autoblog is a joke.
      Justin
      • 8 Months Ago
      I'll never own a GM vehicle.
      csrecord
      • 8 Months Ago
      She'll step down after all this and get a golden parachute for taking the fall while the men laugh over cocktails and cigars.
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