General Motors CEO Mary Barra said she has put two GM engineers on leave in connection with faulty ignition switches that have forced the recall of 2.6 million vehicles worldwide and are linked to 31 crashes and 12 deaths in the U.S., plus one fatal crash in Canada.
Separately, GM also has asked NASA to provide a team to verify that the recalled cars can safely be driven. Barra has guaranteed in several forums that if drivers use only the ignition switch, with nothing hanging from it, that the switches won't malfunction. She told Congress she'd let her teenage son drive one that way.
The two engineers, not identified by name or by their connection to the switch snafu within GM, are being paid while on leave. GM did not say if they eventually would be fired or provide other specifics.
"This is an interim step as we seek the truth about what happened," Barra said. "It was a difficult decision, but I believe it is best for GM."
The move follows a briefing from Anton Valukas, the former U.S. attorney overseeing an independent investigation into circumstances leading to the recall.
Members of U.S. House and Senate subcommittees badgered Barra in hearings April 1 and 2 over why people hadn't been fired by GM over the switch problem. She said she didn't want to act rashly and was waiting for Valukas' report.
The full report isn't done, but Barra got an interim briefing from Valukas.
The faulty switches can move out of the "run" position unexpectedly, killing the engine and shutting off power to airbags. GM engineers first experienced the switch problem in 2001 during development of the 2003 Saturn Ion, then again in 2004 as the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt was being finalized.
In 2006 the switch design was changed but that wasn't widely known within GM and the new switch wasn't assigned a new part number, as GM protocol would have required. The cars weren't recalled at that time.
Cobalt, Ion and other 2003 - 2011 GM small cars using the switch were recalled in three steps in February and March this year. Most of the recalled cars -- 2.37 million -- are in the U.S.
The GM engineer linked to the switch redesign is Ray DeGiorgioa. Documents from the House and Senate hearings showed a person of that name signing off on the April 2006 switch change.
In a now-settled civil lawsuit against GM over the death of Brooke Melton, killed in a 2010 crash of her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt that experienced switch failure, lawyer Lance Cooper asked DeGiorgio whether he had ever "signed a work order or a change authorization" to approve a redesigned ignition switch.
DeGiorgio said, "I don't recall ever authorizing such a change, but it would definitely have been picked up in our engineering change systems of such a work order."
At the April 2 Senate grilling of Barra, Sen. Claire McCaskill accused DeGiorgio of committing perjury "repeatedly under oath."
Attempts by reporters to reach DeGiorgio have been unsuccessful.
GM hopes that a review by NASA will provide the credibility on safety issues that the company itself now lacks.
The NASA team first will see if it can verify Barra's claim that the cars are safe to drive if no additional weight is hung from the ignition key. A lawsuit in Corpus Cristi, Texas, asks a federal judge to order GM to put "Do Not Drive" stickers on all the recalled cars until the switches have been replaced.
NASA also would take a broader look at how GM approaches safety issues.