Lawyering-up used to be a sign of guilt. Hiring lawyers to try to pre-empt a raft of independent investigations is a sign of futility.
Last week, we got the results of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s inquiry into himself; General Motors has just announced a probe of its own, even as a real investigation into deadly ignition switches on its compact cars opened in Congress Tuesday.
Why would Mr. Christie and GM waste their money? Is it possible that lawyers you employ will, without fear or favor, get to the bottom of what really happened?
If you believe that, I have a used Saturn Ion to sell you. It’s only been in one accident, and it doesn’t overheat when stuck in bridge traffic.
Let’s look at the results of the governor’s selfie-investigation. It ended with a conclusion along these lines: “Christie Knew Nothing About George Washington Bridge Closures, Christie’s Lawyers Say.”
The only thing to be learned from it is Mr. Christie’s strategy — to bury his former aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, who is portrayed as unstable, dependent on men for her self-worth and given to tears after having been spurned by the governor’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien. (This is reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s defense, which was to have his aides leak that Monica Lewinsky was a crazed and disappointed stalker-liar.)
The report points out that a Christie ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, David Wildstein, told the governor about the closures at a ceremony commemorating the Sept. 11 attacks. But that encounter is dismissed as too insignificant for Mr. Christie to remember. And one of the central players, Port Authority chairman David Samson, a Christie appointee, wasn’t interviewed at all because, well, he didn’t want to be.
Of course, unlike GM’s failure to recall 1.6 million potentially defective cars, no one died in Bridgegate (a woman in a stalled emergency vehicle died but not from the delay). GM’s conduct is reprehensible given that at least 12 deaths are linked to the faulty ignition switches, which could have been fixed at a cost of $10 each.
In certain compacts, as little as a bump to the ignition or a too-heavy set of keys could cause the car to stop. When it ran into something, the airbag would have been deactivated, too. GM had information about fatal accidents, but in 2005 it instructed dealers to tell car owners to lighten the stuff on their key chains.
One of the firms GM hired for its investigation of itself is King & Spalding, a particularly bad choice. In what must have looked clever at the time, King & Spalding lawyers told the family of a victim to drop a suit or the company would come after them for damages. That’s because the deceased had the additional bad luck to get killed on July 3, 2009, a week after the old GM filed for bankruptcy. The new GM wouldn’t be liable, a lawyerly sleight of hand, which now sounds like bankruptcy fraud. King & Spalding has insisted on strict confidentiality agreements from plaintiffs in all settlements so that other potential plaintiffs couldn’t ferret out a design flaw.
But now we’re supposed to believe King & Spalding is going to tell us how GM could have let this minor defect with such catastrophic consequences persist. So far, what’s worked has been to brush off families who try to get answers after accidents and to respond only when sued.
Now that it’s been found out, GM has agreed to a recall. Shockingly, most recalls are voluntary. A 2010 bill that would have strengthened the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was defeated by the industry and sympathetic Republicans. The measure would have reduced the government’s reliance on the industry to self-report, given it more authority to police automakers and more money to track defects itself.
NHTSA, weak though it is, could levy $35 million in fines. Congressional committees — the same Congress that refused to strengthen NHTSA — have called GM to Capitol Hill to explain themselves. On day one, lawmakers learned that an engineer now says he redesigned the ignition switch in 2006, an admission it was defective. He had sworn in a deposition last year that there was nothing wrong with the device.
Had GM recalled the cars earlier, lives might have been saved, according to an exhaustive New York Times investigation published March 25, proof again that it takes outsiders to do a worthwhile investigation. What GM did could turn out to be criminal, and the Justice Department has begun an investigation of its own. The crime isn’t producing a car with a fatal defect. Stuff happens. It’s covering it up while others die from it.
Mr. Christie’s investigation was laughable, GM’s impossibly misguided. Watch out for a description of Rick Wagoner, GM’s chief executive officer during most of the ignition tragedy, insisting that his engineers told him nothing. As if she were anticipating that defense, the new GM CEO, Mary Barra, has changed the organization so that there can no longer be deniability at the top. She’s created a new position for safety that will now be able to get directly to her.
As for Mr. Christie’s investigation of himself, it may have dented him anyway. It inadvertently paints a picture of someone not as ready for prime time as his poll numbers after Hurricane Sandy would have it. He’s gone from being a hands-on manager with a minor in bullying to a distracted figurehead with poor judgment, easily fooled by those around him. Hardly presidential timber.
Paid exonerators can do more harm than good. Mr. Christie didn’t get what he had taxpayers pay for. No report can save GM from what it did.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View.