DETROIT (Detroit Free Press) -- General Motors CEO Mary Barra says she fired 15 employees "who we determined to have acted inappropriately" and also disciplined five employees for their failure to act in the recall crisis.
One of the employees fired is believed to suspended engineer Ray DeGiorgio, following an internal investigation documenting how it failed to respond to an ignition-switch defect that engineers identified more than a decade ago, according to a source familiar with the report.
Nearly five months into her tenure, the moment offers GM CEO Mary Barra a chance to convey the automaker's fresh commitment to transparency, safety and quality amid accusations that a heartless bureaucracy allowed a deadly defect to fester.
But the investigation — conducted by Chicago attorney Anton Valukas — poses significant risks if the lawyer who also probed the collapse of financial giant Lehman Brothers doesn't deliver concrete answers or didn't receive the cooperation GM promised.
The report is expected to identify executives who erred, engineers who embraced cost savings over safety improvements and communication failures that turned out to be deadly.
"The obvious questions are who in the world approved all of this? How high up did it go? Obviously he's supposed to be looking into that," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "If he doesn't have answers, then it's not a good report."
Barra will discuss the Valukas report with employees and media at the GM Tech Center in Warren starting at 9 a.m. The company will also conduct a conference call for analysts in the afternoon. A GM spokesman declined to provide a preview of the report.
Barra has called for Valukas to deliver an "unvarnished" report on the ignition-switch defect, which has triggered recalls for more than 2.6 million small cars, mostly from the 2003 through 2007 model years. The defect is tied to at least 42 crashes and 13 known fatalities.
The ignition switch could be jostled, either by a driver's knee or by the weight of multiple attachments on a key chain, causing it to slip into accessory mode, cutting off electricity to power steering, air bags and other features. GM engineers discovered the problem no later than 2004, but decided not to order a recall because of the cost.
"Timeline will be critical, and who knew what when?" said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond product liability law professor. "How high up in the company was the information available — especially did Barra have any knowledge? At what time did it become clear to her?"
The report is not expected to blame Barra for the problem or accuse her of hiding it. She has maintained she was notified about the issue in late January when GM safety officials recommended a recall — and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigators found no records to dispute her claim.
But other high-level GM executives knew about the problem. For example, former engineering executive Lori Queen was told about the problem in 2005, and former engineering executive Jim Federico became aware of the issue in 2012, according to internal GM documents.
DeGiorgio quietly authorized a fix to the Delphi-manufactured switch in 2006, but testified in a 2013 deposition that he did not remember doing so.
Barra has blamed GM's "cost culture" for deciding the issue wasn't a problem, while others have pointed to the automaker's bureaucracy for preventing officials from communicating effectively about the problem.
The role of GM lawyers is also expected to be part of the report. Georgia lawyer Lance Cooper, who discovered evidence of the defect, sued GM , said he's still waiting for answers on the role attorneys played.
"What they knew, when they knew it and who they were reporting to, there's really a veil over that," Cooper said.
A flurry of investigations
Among the central questions: Is GM simply such a behemoth bureaucracy that engineers, lawyers, safety officials and executives never shared enough information with each other to solve the issue?
"Is it conceivable that they were so isolated that this information couldn't get across the various departments — which I think this is difficult to understand, but I don't know," Tobias said.
GM finally issued a recall in February, but the situation has spawned investigations by the U.S. Justice Department, NHTSA, congressional subcommittees and the Securities and Exchange Commission. GM has turned over more than a million pages of documents to U.S. House investigators alone.
"Many unanswered questions remain about why these vehicles were left on the road for years, even though GM knew something was wrong with them," Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, the ranking Republican on the Senate consumer protection subcommittee, said in a statement. "I am hopeful that this report will fill in the holes about the timeline and explain GM's decision-making processes both in 2005 and in 2008."
Heller added: "I would also like to better understand what discussions were had with NHTSA. Once the report is released, Congress should hold more hearings with representatives from GM, NHTSA and possibly even Delphi in order to make sure that all questions are answered and that this situation never happens again."
NHTSA levied its maximum $35-million fine on GM last month for failing to report the defective ignition switches in a timely manner.
GM has also hired 9/11 compensation fund head Kenneth Feinberg to consider potential settlements with crash victims and their families. Feinberg said Tuesday that he's "weeks away" from offering recommendations.