Federal prosecutors are investigating General Motors’ legal department for possible criminal liability in the way it handled the company’s deadly ignition switch problem, the Wall Street Journal reported.
U.S. officials investigating the matter seek to determine whether lawyers working for GM, both internally and externally, concealed knowledge and evidence of the ignition switch defects from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulators, which in turn could have effectively precluded a safety recall for several years.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the investigation was triggered by an internal GM report in June that blamed its legal counsel for failing to alert GM managers and executives to lawsuits filed against GM that could have uncovered a pattern of crashes in which airbags failed to deploy.
GM began recalling millions of vehicles affected by the ignition switch defect in February, starting with the Chevrolet Cobalt, the Saturn Ion, and other small car models. The recall eventually grew to include nearly 3 million Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Saturn models spanning the years 1997 to 2012.
The ignition switch defect potentially allows the car key to turn the ignition to the “accessory” or “off” position while the vehicle is in motion, deactivating the airbags and resulting in a loss of power steering and anti-lock brakes. GM has linked the flaw to 13 deaths and 54 crashes.
The investigation, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, is part of a wider criminal investigation of GM’s ignition switch defect. Investigators are looking at the actions of both present and past lawyers.
GM fired 15 employees, including several in its legal department, after an internal report conducted by Anton Valukas found a systemic, company-wide pattern of incompetence and neglect. The head of GM’s legal department, Michael Millikin, a 37-year veteran of the company, has kept his position within the company, a circumstance that has drawn harsh disapproval and outrage from critics.