Congress, DOJ to Investigate Timing of GM Recall

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is launching an investigation into the timing of a recall by General Motors (NYSE:GM), putting additional pressure on the automaker for its response to a problem affecting 1.6 million vehicles.

Meanwhile, an aide to Sen. Claire McCaskill said the Missouri Democrat plans to hold a hearing on the recall in the Senate’s Consumer Protection Subcommittee. That hearing will take place in the coming weeks.

The Department of Justice is also investigating whether GM is criminally liable for failing to properly disclose the ignition-switch defect, according to Reuters.

Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan and chairman of the committee, said late Monday the House plans to hold hearings as part of its investigation.

Upton was the main sponsor of a bill, called the Tread Act of 2000, that requires car manufacturers to quickly report fatal accidents tied to defects.

“Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner?” Upton said in a statement. “If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened, and then determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended.”

Earlier Monday, GM said it hired lawyer Anton Valukas, who led the investigation into the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, to head the company’s internal probe of the recall.

Detroit-based GM first issued a recall on Feb. 13 for 779,000 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 compact cars. The automaker then expanded the recall to another 842,000 vehicles. The recalls cover 1.37 million vehicles in the U.S.

The recalls were spurred by a defective ignition switch that can inadvertently cause the key to move out of the “on” position, causing the car to stall and cutting off power to airbags. GM is aware of 13 front-seat deaths and 31 total accidents related to the problem.

According to a chronology GM filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the company was aware of a potential defect as early as 2004, when the problem surfaced during testing of the Cobalt.

In 2007, during an unrelated meeting with federal safety officials, GM was notified of a fatal crash involving a Cobalt and airbags that failed to deploy. GM said it determined last year the ignition switch wasn’t made properly.

In a letter to employees posted on GM’s blog, chief executive Mary Barra said the internal investigation should provide “an unvarnished report on what happened.”

NHTSA, which is also looking into the timing of the recall, can fine automakers up to $35 million for failing to file a recall notice within five days of discovering a safety defect.

Toyota (NYSE:TM) paid a combined total of nearly $50 million in fines for a series of recalls dating back to 2009. The recalls, totaling more than 14 million vehicles, came in response to reports of inadvertent acceleration and other issues.

NHTSA could also draw the ire of Congress for failing to pick up on the problem with the ignition switches.

“Regarding the recent recall of certain GM vehicles, the data available to NHTSA at the time did not contain sufficient evidence of a possible safety defect trend that would warrant the agency opening a formal investigation,” the regulator said in a statement.

Shares of GM fell 5.15% to $35.18 on Tuesday. Through Monday’s close, the stock was already down 9.3% on the year.

FOX Business reporter Rich Edson contributed to this report.