General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra was asked to justify her decision not to fire GM's chief legal officer, Michael Millikin, despite the legal team knowing of the safety hazard and related deaths. UPI/Mike Theiler | License Photo
WASHINGTON, July 17 (UPI) -- GM CEO Mary Barra defended her company's top lawyer, Michael Millikin, for his role in what senators called a cover-up of the faulty ignition switch problem.
Appearing before a Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, General Motors' legal chief Michael Millikin came under immediate attack from from Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who questioned Barra's decision to not fire the carmaker's top lawyer.
"I respectfully disagree," Barra said, later adding, "I need the right team."
McCaskill referred to a internal report that showed the automaker was aware of the defect years before it became public but did not take any action to remedy the snag.
"I don't get how you and Lucy Clark Dougherty still have your jobs," McCaskill said to Millikin. "This is either gross negligence or gross incompetence on the part of a lawyer. The fact that he can say 'I don't know.' "
Millikin has consistently maintained that he got to know of the faulty ignition switch, which has been linked to the death of 13 people, in February of this year and that if he had known earlier he would have taken action.
Documents have shown that the company's legal team fought multiple ignition switch-related lawsuits for years, fully aware that their engineers and investigators knew of the safety problems and related accidents.
"The failure of this legal department is stunning," McCaskill concluded.
Barra's and Millikin's testimony was preceded by the first appearance of compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg, who told the senators that GM had set no limits on what it would pay as compensation to the families of those who were either injured or killed.
"We are authorized to pay as much money as is required," Feinberg testified.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked Feinberg to expand the fund to include victims tied to the over 8 million cars recalled by GM.
"That is entirely up to GM," said Feinberg, who added that he did not have the authority to to expand the fund.