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 over defective ignition switches that have led to more than a dozen deaths. Although she was less arrogant than her predecessors, her best wasn’t good enough — not for Americans and not for GM.
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.”
In a positive sign that GM knows the gravity of the matter, it placed two engineers with links to the ignition problems on leave with pay Thursday. That’s good news to a nation that spent billions of dollars to bail out the bankrupt automaker five years ago.
When Ms. Barra took over GM in January, analysts’ big concern was she had never worked anywhere else in her life. Now their worst fears may 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. The company should help to prosecute any employee who concealed life-threatening information from consumers.
The automaker owes at least that much 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.