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CEO Mary Barra defends GM’s top lawyer, blames fired employees for deadly defect failures

July 17, 2014 at 6:31 PM EDT
General Motor's top lawyer became the top target at a Senate hearing on ignition switch defects that GM failed to address for years. The automaker's own internal report found that the legal staff had failed to share details of related crash settlements, but CEO Mary Barra defended GM’s general counsel Michael Millikin. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

GWEN IFILL: General Motors faced new questions from Congress today over ignition switch defects that went uncorrected for years. They have been linked to at least 13 deaths. And, today, GM’s lawyers were called to account.

Hari Sreenivasan has our report.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D, Mo.: I do not understand how the general counsel for a litigation department that had this massive failure of responsibility, how he would be allowed to continue in that important leadership role in this company.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The top lawyer at General Motors became the top target for senators at the hearing. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill led the charge against GM’s general counsel, Michael Millikin. She cited GM’s own internal reports that the legal staff failed to share details of settlements in crashes linked to the ignition problem.

But CEO Mary Barra defended Millikin and insisted she’s keeping him.

MARY BARRA, CEO, General Motors: He’s the person I need on this team. He had a system in place. Unfortunately, in this instance, it wasn’t brought to his attention, frankly, by people who brought many other issues forward. He is a man of high integrity and he…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Barra said the blame lies with other GM lawyers who’ve since been fired. McCaskill rejected that defense, and instead evoked the scandal at the Veterans Administration.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I think the failure of this legal department is stunning. And the notion — I mean, you look around government, when something like this happens, you know what? Secretary Shinseki didn’t know about those problems with scheduling. Nobody told him. He’s gone.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Adding to the fire, a New York Times report that GM kept quiet for years as federal regulators asked about the potential causes of fatal crashes.

GM has admitted knowing about the ignition switch problem for more than a decade before starting mass recalls this year. Millikin said he only learned about the ignition switch problems in February.

MICHAEL MILLIKIN, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, General Motors: I wish I had known about it earlier, because I know I would have taken action earlier if I did. We had lawyers at General Motors who didn’t do their jobs, didn’t do what was expected of them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal warned there may yet be criminal prosecution.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, D, Conn.: In this instance, the lawyers enabled purposeful concealment and cover-up, possible criminal action that is the subject right now of an investigation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Still, Millikin said GM will not make public the details of previous crash settlements. And he said the company will not waive the bankruptcy shield that bars lawsuits over crashes from before July 2009.