Last week's congressional hearings into a General Motors defect linked to 13 deaths and a recall of 2.8 million vehicles worldwide produced more heat than light, in part due to the deference of GM chief executive Mary Barra to an internal company probe, saying it would provide more answers in due course.
Today, federal regulators announced that line wasn't good enough for them, hitting GM with a mostly symbolic fine of $7,000 a day and threatening to take the automaker to court if it doesn't cooperate with the government's investigation.
The fine, revealed in a letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, marks an extraordinary deterioration in relations between the automaker and the agency, which is also facing congressional questions about why it didn't act sooner to force GM's recall of faulty ignition switches.
Under a request made by NHTSA on March 4, GM was supposed to answer more than 100 questions about the recall by April 3. NHTSA says GM sent an email on March 20 that it would need more time to answer some of NHTSA's technical questions, and provided partial answers by April 3.
But the agency says GM failed to answer a third of its questions, including several that required no special technical expertise — including whether it had changed the ignition switches more than once, or what data it looked at when deciding not to issue a recall before this year.
"These are basic questions concerning information that is surely readily available to GM at this time," the agency said. "It is deeply troubling that two months after recalling the vehicles, GM is unwilling or unable to tell NHTSA whether the design of the switch changed at any other time."
When NHTSA demanded answers, it said GM referred to the investigation by attorney Anton Valukas. As a result, the agency says it has started fining GM $7,000 a day as of April 3 — the maximum allowed under law — and will keep doing so until GM replies. More importantly, NHTSA warns GM that if it continues to hold back answers, the agency will ask the U.S. Department of Justice to go to court for an injunction forcing the company's cooperation.
A GM spokesman did not directly address the fines in response to questions, saying the company has "fully cooperated" by turning over 271,000 pages of information — and that NHTSA had agreed to give GM more time to search through some 5 million documents.
"We believe that NHTSA shares our desire to provide accurate and substantive responses," said GM spokesman Greg Martin. "We will continue to provide responses and facts as soon as they become available and hope to go about this in a constructive manner. We will do so with a goal of being accurate as well as timely."
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