No Justice for General Motors’ Victims

The response of the Justice Department to General Motors’ ignition switch defect cover-up was announced last week. GM’s failure to address the deadly defect led to the loss of lives of at least 169 people. Any hopes for the families of the victims that the crony status of GM would not stand in the way of justice were squashed as the company was given a slap on the wrist by its friends at the Obama Administration.

The Justice Department’s news release regarding the meager $900 million penalty reeked of hypocrisy as it tried to paint a picture of a repentant GM while admitting the company was guilty as charged. From the release:

SIGTARP Special Inspector General Christy Goldsmith Romero said:  “General Motors’ criminal conduct found by SIGTARP and our law enforcement partners defies comprehension.   Our investigation uncovered that GM learned about a life-threatening ignition switch defect that would cause air bags not to inflate, but concealed the deadly safety defect from its regulator, and from people buying used cars from GM dealers.  The worst part about this tragedy is that it was entirely avoidable.  GM could have significantly reduced the risk of this deadly defect by improving the key design for less than one dollar per vehicle but GM chose not to because of the cost.  Americans stepped up and bailed out General Motors with $50 billion; and General Motors must step up and make substantial corporate changes to prevent anything like this from happening again. SIGTARP commends U.S. Attorney Bharara for bringing these charges and standing united in the fight against TARP-related crime.”

FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Diego Rodriguez said:  “GM concealed a safety defect from consumers and regulators, which put drivers at risk.  The resolution of this case shows that safety should never take a backseat to expediency.”

According to the allegations in the Information, as well as other documents filed today in Manhattan federal court, including the Statement of Facts:

From the spring of 2012 through February 2014, GM deceived consumers and failed to make a required disclosure to NHTSA, its U.S. regulator, by regarding the connection that certain of its personnel had identified between the Defective Switch and airbag non-deployment.  GM also falsely represented to consumers that vehicles equipped with the Defective Switch posed no safety concern.

Early Knowledge of the Defective Switch

GM engineers knew before the Defective Switch even went into production in 2002 that it was prone to easy movement out of the Run position.  Testing of a prototype showed that the torque return between the Run and Accessory positions fell below GM’s own internal specifications.  But the engineer in charge of the Defective Switch approved its production anyway.

That’s all tough talk and confirms what we all knew; GM covered up a deadly defect and put profits ahead of lives. It is a complete travesty of justice that no criminal charges are being pursued against those who are guilty. A $900 million fine is a measly amount of money given the egregious crime and the level of revenue at GM. The cronies at the Justice Department went a step further to say what a great job GM is now doing with the following statement:

Since February 2014 and the inception of this federal criminal investigation, GM has taken exemplary actions to demonstrate acceptance and acknowledgement of responsibility for its conduct.  GM, among other things, conducted a swift and robust internal investigation, furnished the Government with a continuous flow of unvarnished facts gathered during the course of that internal investigation, voluntarily provided, without prompting, certain documents and information otherwise protected by the attorney-client privilege, provided timely and meaningful cooperation more generally in the federal criminal investigation, terminated wrongdoers, and established a full and independent victim compensation program that has to date paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in awards.

Really? “Exemplary?” Are we talking about that bogus internal investigation by the attorney, Anton Valukas, whose firm has had a business relationship with GM since 2010 and now is representing the company regarding the charges? Give me a break. And let’s look at that early response in February of 2014 by GM. Here’s what GM’s spokesman, Alan Adler, said about the accidents resulting from GM’s crime and the victims that died:

"All of these crashes occurred off-road and at high speeds, where the probability of serious or fatal injuries was high regardless of air bag deployment. In addition, failure to wear seat belts and alcohol use were factors in some of these cases," the statement said.

Alcohol was involved in two of the five crashes, resulting in three of the deaths, Alan Adler, a spokesman for G.M., said in a telephone interview. The statement said G.M. was also aware of 17 other crashes "involving some type of frontal impact and nonfatal injuries where the air bags did not deploy."

Mr. Adler said it was possible that hitting a deep pothole could turn off the ignition, but that G.M. had received no such reports. A figure for the weight of key rings causing the problems was not available.

I would call that a less-than exemplary response by GM. But in the crony world of GM and the Obama Administration, there is no need to let the facts get in the way of the politically-based assertions by the Justice Department.

Let’s move on to the response from one of the victim’s families. From a Washington Post piece:

But not everyone is satisfied. Laura Christian, the Maryland mother of Amber Marie Rose, a 16-year-old girl killed in a 2005 crash because of the defect, told the Detroit News on Wednesday, “This is one of the worst days since Amber died. …I was really hoping, really, really hoping that the Justice Department would hold GM accountable.”

A transcript of another interview with Ms. Christian is found on a piece entitled Mother of GM Crash Victim: Why Is the Justice Department Allowing GM to Get Away With Murder? Ms. Christian rightfully questions the outcome of the Justice Department’s investigation. From the interview:

It's absolutely ludicrous that GM is able to write a check to get away with what is tantamount to murder, in my opinion. You know, the fact that there are going to be absolutely no individual prosecutions, I mean, that means that all of our loved ones that died, they will have died in vain. I can't comprehend this.

Another great source for the facts on the GM travesty is Ed Niedermeyer who penned the piece GM's Cynicism Pays Off in Ignition Settlement. Niedermeyer states, “Having rewarded GM's decades of mismanagement with a bailout, the government has now responded to its lethal negligence with an astounding lack of consequences.”

The crony status of General Motors should not protect the company and the guilty individuals from justice for the victims and their families. There is still a small hope for action as advocates try to bring to light the injustice, one of whom penned a piece entitled General Motors: Homicidal Fugitive from Justice. It is suggested there to contact the Senators who have been critical of the GM cover-up stating, “Call Senator Blumenthal’s office at 202-224-0335 or Senator Markey’s office at 202-224-2742 for further information.”

I will be making my calls to the Senators, and I hope many more will, as well. I will close with the following words, which I could not have stated better, from GM victim Amber’s mom, Laura Christian:

Now, I'm not a legal scholar; I can't really voice opinion to this. But, you know, having worked in law enforcement before, I know that there are ways. This is not the first time a corporation has done acts of evil-doing, you know, and others have been prosecuted for it. You know, why not this time? I really want the answer to that question.

Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.