GM Puts Embattled Engineers on Leave in Light of New Findings

Two engineers who reportedly were responsible for “fateful calls” in the ongoing ignition switch fiasco have been placed on paid leave by General Motors, Bloomberg reports. Ray DeGiorgio and Gary Altman played a significant role in what has now blown up into a federal investigation spanning several agencies, and the two are suspended with pay until the matters are settled.

GM’s now-infamous 2.59 million small car recall has been directly attributed to at least 13 deaths and numerous accidents. Any extraneous weight on the keyring can cause the ignition switch to shift off or into accessory mode, thereby disabling the power brakes, power steering, and the airbags while the car is still moving, all because of a component smaller than a dime that didn’t live up to General Motors’ internal specifications — but was installed anyways.

Altman, Bloomberg says, led the engineering team that worked on the Chevrolet Cobalt, one of the affected cars, and rejected a fix because it was too expensive and would take too long, internal documents indicated. DeGiorgio, meanwhile, was the head of the team that designed the faulty switch.

“In 2006, after car columnists and customers complained about the switch, DeGiorgio quietly greenlighted an improvement that others at GM didn’t learn about for more than six years,” Bloomberg reports. “Last year, he denied under oath that he knew the part had been changed.”

Mary Barra, General Motors

DeGiorgio and Altman are now the lighting rods for the ire from the panel investigating why it took the company so long to issue a recall. DeGiorgio was part of a “culture of coverup that allowed an engineer at General Motors to lie under oath” and that continued in recent months, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, told CEO Mary Barra during an April 2 Senate hearing. “I for the life of me can’t understand why he still has his job.”

Barra said of their suspensions that “this is an interim step as we seek the truth about what happened. It was a difficult decision, but I believe it is best for GM,” per Bloomberg. Barra’s biggest challenge now is convincing the country and the government that the new General Motors that emerged from bankruptcy is better and handles things differently than the “old GM.”

“It’s about time,” McCaskill said in response in a statement on Thursday, following GM’s announcement. “This marks a small step in the right direction for GM to take responsibility for poor — and possibly criminal — decisions that cost lives and put millions of American consumers at risk.”

An engineering inquiry was made in 2004 — the issue was known about since 2001 – after customers complained the engine “can be keyed off with knee while driving,” according to documents. However, “none of the solutions presents an acceptable business case,” a manager said at the time, Bloomberg reports. DeGiorgio then signed an order in 2006 with Delphi Mechatronics Systems, the manufacturer, to upgrade the switch with a longer and more tense spring.

Oddly, despite the update, the part number for the switch wasn’t updated to reflect the difference. This meant that shops installing the new switch had no way of knowing if it had been done or not. “It’s pretty much standard procedure to make a part number change when they change the part like they did,” Pat Donahue, a private engineering consultant who worked at General Motors for almost two decades until 2001, told Bloomberg.

DeGiorgio was subjected to a five-hour deposition by investigators. Lance Cooper, the Georgia lawyer who’s following up a wrongful death suit against GM, showed DeGiorgio an example of the faulty ignition switch, as well as a replacement part with a longer spring in the so-called detent plunger. DeGiorgio said he could see the difference, but wasn’t aware of it before the deposition.

Six months later (last October), GM’s internal defect investigators found a copy of the document from Delphi that bore DeGiorgio’s signature and indicated that the switch had been changed in 2006.

Barra said that the company is still investigating how exactly this situation simmered beneath the radar of GM executives. No word has been issued as to when the engineers will be allowed to return, if at all.