A GM engineer who once reported to CEO Mary Barra and is now a vice president at the company was involved in a debate in 2005 over how to fix the ignition problem that led to the recall of millions of vehicles, company documents show.
While attention has previously focused on Ray DeGiorgio, the engineer who secretly authorized changes to a faulty ignition switch now linked to at least 13 deaths, the internal documents show that Doug Parks, GM’s vehicle chief engineer for the Chevy Cobalt at the time, was involved in an email exchange about how to fix inadvertent shut-offs of the vehicles -- caused by the ignition switch being bumped out of the “run” position.
Parks was later promoted to a vice presidential position, reporting to Mary Barra from September 2012 until January, when she was appointed CEO. A GM official denied that Parks was a confidante of Barra’s.
Barra has testified that she and other senior GM executives only learned of a possible safety issue in the Cobalt in December 2013 and did not find out that it was an ignition switch issue until Jan. 31 of this year.
In an email exchange from May 2005, Parks suggested a plug insert for the key as a fix to resolve ignition shut-offs. Parks, who is now vice president of the automaker’s global product programs, wrote that a plug seemed to be "the only real, quick solution."
Parks was responding to an email from a brand quality manager, Steven Oakley, who was seeking assistance resolving a customer's request that GM buy back a Cobalt because of inadvertent stalling. Oakley’s email indicated that other cars at the dealership appeared to also have a similar defect, in which the effort required to turn the key from run to accessory was “very weak.”
GM declined a request for comment from NBC News on Parks’ behalf.
GM’s internal investigation into the ignition switch recall, led by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, mentioned that DeGiorgio was copied on this email chain, but it did not mention that Parks was, too.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, asked Valukas about why Parks’ name was omitted from the report at a June 18 House hearing.
“Why was it more significant that Mr. DeGiorgio was aware of this exchange rather than the vehicle chief engineer?” Johnson asked.
“I don't know that it was more significant,” Valukas replied. “It was significant because Mr. DeGiorgio ultimately made the decision to change the part. And in our interviews with him, he said that he was not aware of the fact that this was an issue, that he was not aware of the publicity and he was not aware of the email traffic concerning this, while we had information that that was not in fact the case.”
Johnson then turned to Barra.
"The chief engineer has to count on the people doing their job.”
“What knowledge should someone in the chief engineer position have about the vehicle compared to someone such as Mr. DeGiorgio?” he asked. “I mean, would it be reasonable that the chief -- the vehicle chief engineer would have known about this situation?”
Barra responded, “There's 30,000 parts on a car. The chief engineer has to count on the people doing their job.”
Valukas’ report, released early this month, faulted numerous GM employees for failing to “understand or solve the problem” and faulted what it called a “dysfunctional culture” at the company, which led to the recall of some 2.6 million GM vehicles.
But it singled out DeGiorgio for particularly harsh criticism.
It said DeGiorgio approved the part that allowed the ignition switch to be inadvertently turned off – known as a “detent plunger” -- for production in 2002 despite knowing that it did not meet technical specifications and had failed “rotational torque” tests. DeGiorgio eventually ordered a design change to the switch in 2006 – the use of a slightly longer version of the detent plunger to alleviate the problem, but he didn’t instruct the manufacturer to change the part number, which could have led GM to identify the cause of the stalling issue sooner, according to GM documents.
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According to GM’s internal report, a journalist informed Parks in “summer or fall” 2004 that he had “turned off the car by hitting his knee against the key fob or chain.”
Parks then asked Gary Altman, the program engineering manager, to... (try) to replicate the event and to determine a fix.”
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GM has said it dismissed 15 employees, including DeGiorgio and Altman, and disciplined five others for their role in in the handling of the ignition switch problems.
Barra has said she doesn’t anticipate any additional firings.
A GM spokesman confirmed that Parks is still employed at the company but had no further comment. It is unclear whether Parks was among the five additional employees who were disciplined but not fired.
First published June 27 2014, 4:22 PM