A preliminary investigation will be conducted by the department's office in Southern New York, and prosecutors will examine whether GM was criminally negligent in delaying its recall of the faulty cars for as long as ten years, according to the report.
A spokesperson with the DOJ's Southern New York office declined to confirm the investigation late Tuesday afternoon, and GM said it would not comment on the Reuters report.
Should the DOJ launch an investigation, it would be the latest one of many into the actions of the beleaguered Detroit automaker. On Monday, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee said it would launch an investigation within the next week into why it took the automaker so long to issue a recall over a defect that has caused at least 13 deaths and 31 crashes.
"Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner?" asked Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan), the chairman of the committee. "If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened, and then determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended."
Following a defect with Firestone Tires that contributed to the deaths of more than 200 motorists, Upton helped author the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act that was enacted on Nov. 1, 2000.
Among other things, that legislation created the Early Warning Reporting system within the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a system that safety advocates say should have alerted authorities to deadly problems far earlier. GM filed at least 51 death reports via the Early Warning Report system between 2004 and 2012, according to The Center for Auto Safety, yet no recall came.
Documents show that General Motors was aware of problems with the ignition switch in the Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5, Saturn Ion and several other models as early as 2004 – before the cars were even sold to the public. NHTSA was aware of the problem as early as 2007, according to records. But no cars were recalled until last month.
Another investigation into GM could take place in the Senate. Also Tuesday, U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) asked Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to hold hearings on GM's failure to recall affected cars in a timely fashion. McCaskill chairs the Senate's Consumer Protection Subcommittee. An aide to McCaskill told The Wall Street Journal she intends to do so.
The three potential investigations would all come on top of an investigation by NHTSA officials, who sent notice of a preliminary investigation to GM last week, in which they asked the automaker to respond to 107 detailed questions regarding the defect and its delays in recalling vehicles. Responses are due April 3.
NHTSA itself has been the subject of much scrutiny from safety advocates, who say the watchdog agency failed in its duty to notify the public of a dangerous problem in a timely fashion. And GM said Monday that it would hire outside counsel to conduct its own internal investigation.
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.