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.
"This situation has been evolving," Wojchowski wrote to Barra. "We will meet and understand the latest data."
Barra testified before Congress that she did not know of the ignition-switch problem until January of this year.
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."
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.
Five US senators said General Motors has conducted itself in a "fraudulent and reprehensible" manner.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.