When Mary Barra, the chief executive at General Motors, and her underlings head for a Senate committee room on Thursday, they should expect a warm reception. Very warm.
In fact, we are certain the environment will be downright hot and will make the congressional grilling Barra got last April look like an appearance at the Grosse Pointe Rotary Club. We expect that some senators may even suggest pursuing criminal charges against some in the company.
The increased animus toward GM springs from an investigative report by The New York Times that strongly suggests the auto manufacturer not only didn't report dangerous ignition problems it was having with some of its cars, but that it withheld or offered misleading information to investigators examining some of the fatal crashes.
In one high-profile case, for example, the company allowed a woman who had been driving one of GM's cars to plead guilty to negligent homicide charges in connection with a crash that killed her passenger. She entered the plea because she had a trace of Xanax in her system at the time of the crash, but the Times' reporting reveals GM's engineers had concluded a month before that the crash likely was caused by mechanical failure and that she was not to blame.
The Times used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain several "death inquiry" reports about some of the crashes. Those inquiries in theory are designed for automakers to explain to regulators the circumstances surrounding a crash so as to identify potential car defects and solutions to those defects.
In its response to the inquiry involving the crash mentioned above, GM wrote that there may not have been "sufficient reliable information to accurately assess the cause," despite a determination by its own engineer that the crash was most likely caused by the engine suddenly shutting off.
That is shameful, but, we are sorry to say, it is not surprising. It bespeaks a corporate structure that existed to protect itself at all costs.
Michael P. Millikin, the head of GM's legal department, may get an even more unpleasant reception than Barra at the Senate hearing. Based on the Times reporting, Millikin certainly should have some important questions to answer.
Barra, who was not in charge of the company when these cases occurred, has repeatedly insisted her tenure will change that corporate culture. We will see about that. To be fair, she has made some impressive steps in that direction, but this new information shows that she may be in for a much bigger job than she had anticipated.