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Willful Ignorance’: Ex-Auditor Blasts GM for Cutting Safety Program

GM deliberately dismantled a global quality and safety program in the late 1990s, reflecting a culture of “willful ignorance” that likely guided the automaker’s response to ignition switch failures and other problems during the past decade, a former company quality auditor told NBC News.

The auditor, William J. McAleer, said in an interview that he ran GM’s Global Delivery Survey program from 1985 to 1998, dispatching teams of GM personnel, including managers, to conduct checks on finished vehicles delivered from GM’s assembly plants.

“We would check them in rail yards around the country, and see what the level of quality was on them,” McAleer said.

McAleer, a career GM employee who began as an assembly line worker in 1968, said GM forced him out of his position after the audit program began identifying and investigating serious technical problems in vehicles and conducting “root cause analyses” to determine why problems had occurred.

“We began to find defects that would threaten the safety of the [vehicle] owner,” McAleer said. “And these were being shipped, apparently unknowingly, by our assembly plants to the public.”

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At first, McAleer said, GM’s response was to act to correct problems immediately. But in the late 1990s, as McAleer pushed for GM to fix potentially seriously defective vehicles already delivered to customers, something changed, he said.

“It was no longer acceptable to have a problem at General Motors, whether it was a safety problem or any kind of problem, problems were not acceptable,” McAleer said. “Any time you had a problem, you ran into resistance. ‘That's not a problem.’ ‘That was a problem, it's not a problem now.’ ‘You're wrong.’ ‘That's not something that we need to concern ourselves with.’ And that was safety and non-safety items. It was all items were no longer a problem.”

In 1998, McAleer said, GM removed him from his job running the audit program.

“I was never told why I was removed,” McAleer said. “I was told that I could have any job I wanted anywhere I wanted, to find one that I would be happy with and go.”

When his assistant, Courtland Kelley, took over the program, McAleer claims, GM ended the root-cause analyses conducted to determine causes of technical problems.

“They stopped asking why. And when they stopped asking why, nobody's responsible, which I believe was the desired effect,” McAleer said.

“Getting rid of the cause of the defect is priceless. It takes all responsibility for the defect away from everybody. Nobody owns this defect. And the plant can say, ‘It was working when it left here.’ And the supplier can say, ‘My part was good.’ It relieves everybody of responsibility.”

By 2002, McAleer said, GM removed Kelley from the position, and ended the audit program of quality and safety checks altogether.

GM responds

Contacted about McAleer’s allegations, GM officials did not dispute the facts as he presented them, but disagreed with his interpretations and conclusions. They pointed out that McAleer was not a safety engineer and was not involved in the official safety-testing of vehicles.

In a written response to questions, GM spokesman Alan Adler wrote that GM has a “rigorous” quality and safety auditing process called the Global Customer Audit, or GCA, and had a version of that process in place at the time McAleer’s program was operating, after it was dismantled, and since then. Adler said the GCA program now audits “fit and finish and dynamics” for finished cars at each GM assembly plant -- a 12 total cars every day, testing them for one to two hours each, including “real-world” driving.

“The [rail yard] audits that Mr. McAleer discussed were discontinued,” the GM spokesman wrote, “because they were determined to add little value.”

But McAleer claims that GM’s plant-based audit program had become “corrupted” and “totally inadequate” because its process involved assembly plants checking their own work, and that the audit program he ran originally began in order to address that.

He also believes GM canceled his program because of the requirements of a law Congress passed. In late 2000, Congress passed legislation known as the TREAD Act, partially in response to investigations of rollover crashes involving Ford Explorer vehicles with Firestone tires. The TREAD Act required auto manufacturers to report information about possible vehicle defects to the federal government.

“There was a culture of willful blindness, that if you admitted you had a problem, you would have a problem,” McAleer said. “And so everybody had to act like everything was fine all the time.”

But GM spokesman James Cain disputed McAleer’s allegation that the change was motivated by the TREAD Act.

"The TREAD Act increased the reporting obligations and included potential criminal penalties," Cain said. “There have been millions of vehicles recalled in the years since. Some have been very large and very expensive recalls."

Maryann Keller, an auto analyst for four decades who has written two books on GM, said that McAleer’s claims about GM’s dismantling of the audit program he worked on seem plausible to her.

Although she has no direct knowledge of the matter, Keller suspects GM may have become less interested in detecting defects in the late 1990s for several reasons. During that period, she pointed out, GM was separating all of its own supplier divisions into a new business, Delphi Automotive, and was shifting financial responsibility for defects onto suppliers.

“These actions might have played into GM's decisions along with other efforts to boost shareholder value,” Keller said. “Anything to boost the bottom line and get their share price up was paramount. “Anything that would be a current expense that they did not see as critical, I could see why they would defer it, or dismantle it.”

Between 1999 and 2003, McAleer filed four separate lawsuits against GM in federal court, alleging that the company had subjected him to whistleblower retaliation and requesting compensation. In 2002, he offered to settle with GM for a $1.4 million lump-sum payment, reflecting the future earnings and benefits he would forgo if he accepted early retirement then. McAleer said he wasn’t seeking compensation but was trying to get the GM Board of Directors to address his concerns. He said he deliberately set an amount above $1 million because he believed only the board could consider and approve a demand of that size.

The court decided against McAleer in all four cases. The court did not decide on the merits of his factual allegations about safety concerns. It found that McAleer had not proven that the company’s employment actions were related to his quality and safety work, and that whistleblower protection laws in Michigan, where GM is based, did not apply in Georgia, where McAleer lived.

McAleer’s successor on the quality audit program, Kelley, also sued GM in a Michigan state court. He brought his suit in 2003 after his removal from his position, alleging, according to court documents, that GM took “a number of adverse employment actions” against him “as a result of [his] repeated expressed concerns about “documented safety defects.”

“In the last few years,” Kelley’s 2003 complaint states, “he has been subjected to adverse employment actions because of his expressed concerns for the safety of GM’s customers and other drivers who could be injured or killed by the defects identified in Plaintiff’s GDS audit.”

Kelley remains a GM employee and declined an NBC News request for an interview. According to court documents retrieved from the Michigan Circuit & Probate Court of Macomb County, Michigan, the court closed Kelley’s case in 2004 without issuing a legal opinion (on a motion by GM for summary disposition), after Kelley and his attorney did not appear at a final court proceeding.

McAleer remained a paid employee at GM through 2004, in what he said was a do-nothing job with no real responsibilities, then accepted an early retirement at age 55.

Although McAleer had no involvement in the detection of the ignition switch problems in GM models that have been the focus of GM safety recalls this year, he wrote a strongly worded letter to the GM Board of Directors more than a decade ago -- in 2002 -- which now seems predictive of the continuing investigations into GM’s handling and reporting of those problems.

In that letter, with the Ford-Firestone rollover crashes investigations still fresh in the auto industry’s memory, McAleer made blunt allegations and warnings about GM’s eroding safety culture, and its implications.

McAleer warned the board of “ongoing safety concerns in GM Manufacturing” due to its “willful ignorance” of dangerous safety problems with its vehicles.

“GM has tolerated this intentional ignorance at the plant level,” McAleer wrote, “indicating either a failure or refusal to fully explore the problem in our manufacturing process. All to the complete detriment, and indeed, danger of our customers and others on the roads.”

“The system acts as if raising a safety issue internally were an act of corporate treason,” he wrote.

Cain, the GM spokesman, told NBC News the company has been unable to determine what became of McAleer’s letter.

“We don’t know exactly how it was handled," he said. "We did go back and look at the minutes of the meetings, it wasn’t noted in the minutes. The minutes don’t reflect his letter was discussed."

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A GM official, speaking on-background, told NBC News that since GM discovered lapses in how the company first detected and addressed the ignition problems in its Chevrolet Cobalt models, GM launched a comprehensive safety review of its vehicles, dating back to the late 1990s. That review has led to more than 40 recalls of 28 million vehicles this year.

That official told NBC News that, while McAleer did raise valid safety concerns, and some things that happened 10 years ago “shouldn’t have happened,” those things “wouldn’t happen today” because its safety processes are “much stronger” now.

In his 2002 letter, McAleer told the board he bore “no grudge against the company,” and thought of GM as “the thousands of employees trying to do the right thing every day.”

“I have no desire to hurt them or the millions of stakeholders GM has around the world,” he wrote. “I remain as loyal as ever; however, my moral obligation to potential victims of these unsafe vehicles supersedes my loyalty. The existing vehicles on the road must be inspected and repaired. We must insure this never happens again.”

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“The public can forgive a mistake, but a cover-up is fatal,” he wrote. “The sordid details of the corporation's behavior need not be made public. Corrective action will keep me silent.”

So why is McAleer speaking out now?

“People are listening now,” he said. “I'm talking now because people are listening and there is a lesson to be learned.”