US Congress probe of deadly defect in GM cars expands

Getty Images

Congress's investigation of a deadly defect in some General Motors cars widened on Tuesday, and a House committee ordered the automaker and a federal regulator to provide details on steps they took to get unsafe cars off the road.

In another development, federal prosecutors in New York are examining whether GM is criminally liable for failing to properly disclose the defect, according to a source familiar with that investigation.

The malfunction, which first came to light a decade ago and involves more than 1.6 million GM vehicles, has been linked to 13 deaths and prompted a recent recall by the automaker. The defect, a problem with the ignition switch in some GM cars, could cause cars to stall, airbags to fail and other problems while moving at high speeds.

The supplier of the ignition switch, Delphi Automotive, said in a statement on Tuesday that the part had not been provided to any other automaker.

(Read more: GM recall investigation first big test for new CEO)

US Attorney in NY opens criminal probe on GM

The congressional inquiry expanded to the Senate as Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller moved to launch hearings about the issue.

In the House, the Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to GM CEO Mary Barra and National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration Acting Administrator David Friedman seeking information on their responses to consumers' complaints about the problem. They set a deadline of March 25 for the information.

Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said there were several questions surrounding the suspected malfunctioning ignition switches in the GM cars.

"We are just looking for answers to determine what the company and NHTSA knew about these problems, when they knew it, and what they did about it,'' Upton said.

(Read more: Car buyers borrowing record amount)

The senior Democrat on the panel, Representative Henry Waxman, said the committee will look at whether GM ``knowingly allowed faulty and dangerous cars to remain on the road.'' Waxman added that lawmakers also will gauge whether NHTSA ``has all the tools the agency needs to keep drivers safe.''

Congress' investigation into automobile safety issues is the latest in a string of high-profile problems plaguing the industry. In 2009-11, Toyota recalled automobiles in the United States after consumers complained about uncontrolled acceleration.

In 2000, Upton spearheaded an investigation into Firestone tire failures on Ford Motor vehicles, which resulted in federal legislation requiring better industry reporting on consumer complaints about defects.

(

Neither the House nor Senate panels has yet announced when hearings would be held or who would be called to testify.

White House spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped a question at a daily briefing about whether the White House was satisfied with how the NHTSA has handled the GM matter.

"Well, I can tell you that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened a formal investigation into whether GM shared the information they had about this issue as quickly as they should have,'' Carney said.

He referred further questions about the recall to the agency.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the watchdog group the Center for Auto Safety, said NHTSA had more than enough data about the defect to order a recall by early 2007.

"It's absolutely egregious,'' he said. "NHTSA has become too cozy with the auto industry."

GM spokesman Greg Martin noted that the company on Monday said that it will cooperate with Congress as it looks into how GM and the federal government responded to the safety problem.

GM officials no doubt will be called to testify in any House or Senate hearings in coming weeks.

But the company is no stranger to Capitol Hill where it has a strong lobbying presence.

Last year, GM spent $8.8 million on lobbying activities, earning it a ranking of 42nd out of 2,900 organizations tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics. The expenditures were double those of rival Toyota for that year, according to Senate lobbying records.

Besides in-house lobbyists, GM also employed 14 outside firms. Among those hired: Emily Porter, a former top policy adviser to House Speaker John Boehner. She now works for the Nickles Group.

--By Reuters