What Did Obama Motors Know?

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GM — known derisively as “Obama Motors” because of the crony deal it got from the Obama administration — is once again in the news . . . for a massive corporate screwup.

GM is about to be investigated by Congress in the matter of the company’s recall of 1.6 million vehicles. These vehicles had faulty ignition switches. Their malfunctions apparently led to 13 deaths. GM has lawyered up, for it will surely face many tort lawsuits, as it surely should.  Recalls are not unknown in the auto industry, but what is causing Congress to investigate is that it took GM about ten years to get around to the recall. So GM has hired the big-name lawyer who headed the investigation into the 2008 Lehman Brothers failure to be the conspicuous head of its own internal investigation.

This is called: damage control.

When GM switches fail, drivers report that their vehicles become very hard to steer, and the air bags become disabled. So not only is the likelihood of accidents increased, but the likelihood of extreme injury and death also increases dramatically.

GM employees knew about this problem as early as 2004, when reports about it were discussed in the company’s engineering division. This is according to the timeline that GM itself has released. The company is not saying whether or not its engineers asked for a recall, or when the idea of a recall was first suggested.

In a risible act of hypocrisy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has presented the company with a list of over 100 questions it wants answered. It now appears that the NHTSA knew of the problem as early as 2007. Its people raised the issue in a meeting. But the NHTSA is refusing to answer any questions about it.

The affair has obviously brought back to the minds of investors the old GM — the one that had to be rescued at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars.

In a lawsuit, settled last year, brought by the family of a nurse killed in a crash involving one of these faulty switches, the plaintiff’s attorney discovered that GM had an engineering team investigating the problem (found to be prevalent in small GM cars). But this was never publicized, so owners of those cars were never warned that they were at risk.

When it was announced that the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York had begun an investigation, GM shares dropped 5%, because the facts seemed to indicate not just negligence, but outright criminality.

This is just the most publicized of GM’s recent recalls. Current GM CEO Mary Barra has launched several other recalls, including one of 1.7 million higher-end vehicles (SUVs and Cadillacs) troubled by an airbag deployment wiring defect. The total number of GM vehicles recalled has now hit 4.8 million for the first quarter of 2014 — a sixfold increase from the number for all of last year. The company has issued seven major recalls in just the first three months of this year.

GM has put aside $300 million to cover immediate costs, but this is obviously not going to cover all the eventual costs. One critic has called for a fund of $1 billion. Some dealers are already reporting slower traffic in their showrooms. Meanwhile, some experts, such as corporate crisis consultant Larry Kamer, are suggesting that this crisis is a good opportunity for Ms. Barra and the “new” GM to show how much they care for customers. Kamer was a consultant for Toyota during its 2010 recall. Toyota recently settled with the U.S. Justice Department on that recall.

Barra has stepped forward to admit that the recall took too long, to offer her condolences to the families of those killed, and to announce that she has assembled a team to help the company handle and “learn from” the incident. Given that Barra was executive director of GM’s manufacturing engineering division while the deaths occurred, one is entitled to be a little skeptical of her new-found burning desire to enshrine the company as the Quality Queen of automotive technology.

As one report notes, Barra has reason to worry. The affair has obviously brought back to the minds of investors the old GM — the one that had to be rescued at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars. The article notes that Toyota took a major hit to its image from its recall two years ago. Toyota had to pay the Justice Department $1.2 billion for misleading customers. Attorney General Holder boldly declared that the Toyota deal will “serve as a model for how we treat cases with similarly situated companies,” though he didn’t address how that relates to GM.

Here is where one gets suspicious. The feds went after Toyota with a furry when it had its recalls, although the main accusation against it — that some models had “sticky accelerators” — was never proven. When it was charged that floor mats improperly installed by one Lexus dealer in San Diego led to the death of a family, Holder turned his department loose on Toyota, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood loudly proclaimed that Toyota owners should be afraid for their lives.

Of course, while the feds were going after Toyota so furiously, they owned GM. This stank to heaven. However, it is now clear that even as Holder and LaHood were conducting their Obama-jihad against Toyota, their own Obama Motors was known by their own NHTSA to be killing people. Cover-ups are common in government, I suppose, but a cover-up of this magnitude, of a company that had been socialized by the self-same government, is something rare.

Given Eric Holder’s record as an ideological hack, we can laugh at the idea that his Justice Department will honesty investigate GM.

Add to this the fact that at the time a little-noticed provision of GM’s bankruptcy deal was that the “new” (i.e., socialized) GM would not be liable for the tort claims of the “old” (i.e., pre-bailout) GM. This doesn’t just hint of corruption — it reeks. It isn’t clear to what degree GM will use that shield. Law professor David Skeel thinks that while GM is legally safe in using the bankruptcy shield, it would look bad to do so — hardball to the max. And lawyers are already sidestepping the issue by filing suits alleging that the value of some GM models have been hurt, rather than going directly for personal injury tort.

So not only did the Obama administration orchestrate a crony bankruptcy that handed over assets primarily to the administration’s own financial backers, but it apparently stood by and let innocent people die without ordering appropriate recalls. This, so it could run on the election mantra, “Bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive!” Yes, GM was alive, but a number of its customers were dead.

Given Eric Holder’s record as an ideological hack, we can laugh at the idea that his Justice Department will honesty investigate GM. Perhaps what we need is a special prosecutor — somebody outside the control of Holder’s Justice — backed with enough assets to cleanse the stables of Obama Motors.




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Comments

Visitor

I take philosopher/lecturer Gary Jason's point on the GM "crisis" du jour and think it is well made after getting past the first half.

I do not know how old he is, but if old enough, he'll recall there was a time when the operator of a vehicle was considered the captain of a ship and responsible for navigating it safely through the rocky shoals of traffic and obstructions. No air bags or seat belts. Just be careful with your driving. Yup, accidents happen and have happened and will happen forever and ever. Just do the best, as a driver, that you can.

Now we expect a motor vehicle to be so "safe" that a dog or cat or parakeet can operate it with no injury or loss of life (human or otherwise) to be tolerated. Then, when tragedies like all of 13 deaths occur out of millions and millions of vehicles sold because (apparently) someone hung 5 pounds of keys from the ignition switch, "we" engage in "our" favorite US pastime, playing the blame game. Give me any death with sufficient facts and I'll find someone to blame - anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. It gets tiresome. Let's revisit the old adage: shit happens.

One mild complaint from an editorial or journalistic perspective. Gary refers to a nurse killed in a crash "involving one of these faulty switches" and the scientist and logician in me wonders about the nature of the "involvement."

Oh well, as long as government agencies are continuing to protect us (right, Bernie? right WTC towers uno et dos?) and raking in millions and billions for coffer fulfillment purposes, all is well in modern America.

Johnimo

I guess we've come full circle as Libertarians. I was one of the earliest to object to the "Buy American" mantra back when there was an American Motors. Whoa, am I aging myself? Surely so.

Now, the truly American and Libertarian thing to do is to "Buy American, Buy Toyota." It should become our constant chant. We should print bumper stickers and put them everywhere as a form of political protest as well as a statement of principle.

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