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General Motors’ new chief executive, Mary Barra, did her best before two congressional panels last week to defend the automaker’s handling of its crisis involving defective ignition switches that have led to more than a dozen deaths. But though she was far less arrogant than her predecessors, her best wasn’t nearly good enough — not for Americans, and not if GM wants to survive.
An internal memo revealed that company officials knew years ago that the switch was defective, but concluded that spending the money to correct the problem was not “an acceptable business case.” It would also appear clear, as one U.S. senator charged, that a lead switch engineer for the Chevrolet Cobalt lied under oath about the faulty part. Ms. Barra conceded that “the data put in front of me indicates that.”
But in a damaging sign of what remains wrong with the company, the engineer still works for GM. That speaks volumes — and is a betrayal of the nation that spent billions of dollars to bail out the bankrupt automaker five years ago.
When Ms. Barra took command of GM in January, analysts’ biggest concern was that she had never worked anywhere else in her life. Now, their worst fears seem to be coming true. This is not, however, about the CEO’s career, but about the survival of America’s biggest automaker.
If GM hopes to regain public confidence, it needs to conduct nothing short of a purge. Anyone who was responsible for the faulty switch, or who knew about it and said nothing, needs to be fired, immediately, and without any golden parachute if that’s legally possible. The company should be a willing participant in prosecuting any executives who concealed potentially life-threatening information from consumers.
If Ms. Barra indeed did not know of this scandal until just before the story broke, then she should be especially ruthless in dealing with those who kept her in the dark. She needs to dedicate herself to changing a corporate culture that she tacitly admitted tends to suppress bad news. If she fails to do that, she too needs to go.
It is getting harder to argue that buying a GM vehicle is a rational decision — and that is perhaps the most damning indictment of all. The automaker owes something better to the tens of thousands of employees who have stuck by it, and to the nation whose tax dollars saved it not so long ago.