Senators demanded the head of General Motors' chief counsel, Michael Millikin, at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Thursday.
"How in the world did Michael Millikin keep his job?" exclaimed Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance.
Lawyers on Millikin's staff were involved in "cover-up, concealment, deceit and even fraud," and should be accused of crimes by the Justice Department, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. He said directly that Millikin should be fired.
Millikin testified at the panel's second hearing into GM's years-delayed recall of 2.6 million 2003-2011 small cars linked to 13 deaths. Their defective ignition keys inadvertently move out of the "run" position, shutting off the engine and killing power assist to the steering a brakes and — GM didn't realize for years — disabling the air bags.
GM CEO Mary Barra defended Millikin as having "high integrity" and being a key part of the legal team she wants at GM.
Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer hired by General Motors to administer its compensation fund for victims of its faulty ignition switches, says the program may be imperfect, but it is "uncapped." VPC
It was Barra's fourth appearance on Capitol Hill — she also appeared twice before a House panel — to explain GM's years-delayed handling of the switch defect.
The Senate subcommittee said it will hold at least one more hearing in the matter, to probe regulatory gaffes by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Millikin told Senators he didn't know that defective switches were causing wrecks, injuries and deaths until February, just before GM recalled the first of the cars to replace the switches.
He said the first time any GM lawyers put together the link between ignition switch failures and air bag failures was in April of 2013, from disclosures in depositions in a lawsuit against GM. But, Millikin said, that information didn't percolate up to him.
"Gross negligence or gross incompetence," that Millikin did not know sooner, McCaskill said.
Former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, hired by GM to probe why it took until 2014 to recall defective switches that first showed up in 2001, also appeared and told senators that he found that Millikin didn't know of pending lawsuits about the defect until a week before the first recall of the models.
Barra fired 15 people for their roles in the switch debacle — engineers and several lawyers on Millikin's staff, including one of his top associates, Bill Kemp. Some got financial incentives to leave GM, Millikin conceded.
Rodney O'Neal, CEO of Delphi Automotive, which manufactured the faulty ignition switches, also testified, making Delphi's first public comments on the issue. He repeatedly noted that the switches were made to GM specifications and Delphi wasn't to blame for accidents.
Barra agreed: "It's our responsibility."
First to testify was Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer GM hired to administer a compensation fund for victims killed or injured in accidents caused by the ignition switch malfunctions. Feinberg will start accepting applications for settlements on Aug. 1.
He emphasized to the Senate panel that GM put no limits on compensating victims, as long as the vehicle involved is among the 2.6 recalled for the specific defective switch.
"We will make sure compensation is generous," he said.
Blumenthal said to Feinberg, "I strongly believe your compensation fund must be extended" to include victims tied to 8 million cars that GM recalled for another ignition switch defect on the same day that Feinberg announced details of the compensation fund.
Feinberg: "That is entirely up to GM."
Barra: No. There are "very distinct differences" between the parts.