Senate Bill Would Crack Down On Auto Defects

A GM investigation revealed the company's failure to fix a deadly defect in its cars. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., about a law that would require more transparency.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

GM released an internal investigation this week that revealed employees knew about a faulty ignition switch in one of its vehicles for a decade but did nothing. 13 deaths and dozens of injuries are linked to the defect in Chevy Cobalts.

And inside the company, employees apparently referred to it as, the switch from hell, causing vehicles to shut down and therefore disable the steering, brakes and airbags. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut was apparently not satisfied about the report. He joins us now. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Great to be with you. Thank you.

SIMON: What did you see in that report that impressed you or upset you the most?

BLUMENTHAL: What impressed and upset and absolutely shocked and stunned me, was the GM nod, as it was referred to in the report - the culture of doing nothing about a safety defect that literally killed people. But also, there were glaring gaps in this report, such as the tendency to absolve upper management, deny corporate culpability and moral and legal responsibility for these deaths, injuries and damage.

SIMON: What would you suggest going forward from here, Senator?

BLUMENTHAL: Going forward, some very, very specific steps. Number one, this investigation is the best that GM's money could buy. It was done by GM investigating itself. That's not enough. There has to be outside inquiries, including the Department of Justice doing a criminal investigation and Congress continuing its investigation.

Number two - legislation, as I proposed with Senator Markey, to require more full and prompt recording of all the information that car companies know to the NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Authority, so it can take action to alert consumers.

Number three - legislation also, to stop the ceiling of settlements. If judges believe that public interest is better served by enabling disclosure of agreements that car companies reach with people who have been harmed, car companies should not be able to buy silence from plaintiffs in legal action.

SIMON: Do you see the grounds for criminal investigations here?

BLUMENTHAL: There is credible, significant evidence of both fraud on the United States government because there was concealment of relative information when GM received billions of dollars in taxpayer money without disclosing essential information relating to these safety defects and the claims arising from them. And there was fraud in bankruptcy court by this nondisclosure.

But I think the results show a kind of perverting of the criminal justice system, in so far as GM may have stayed silent and allowed some of the injured individuals to be prosecuted because the police may not have known about this safety defect and thought that the victims were, themselves, to be blamed for the accidents.

SIMON: Fifteen GM people have lost their jobs - I should say, at least 15. Does that shake up the culture you're talking about?

BLUMENTHAL: My feeling is that GM has yet to really acknowledge responsibility. Firing 15 people in an organization of tens of thousands is nothing, just as paying $35 million to the federal government as a penalty for nondisclosure is less than a slap on the wrist. The fact is that this report absolves upper management and denies corporate, moral and legal responsibility, which GM can do only if it establishes a fair and just victims' compensation fund and supports legislation that will prevent this kind of unconscionable concealment in the future.

SIMON: Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, thanks so much for being with us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

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