GM’s Barra Said to Oust VP, Lawyer After Valukas Review

Mike Robinson, General Motors Co. vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs, is the highest-ranking executive dismissed by the automaker as it investigates defective parts linked to 13 deaths, said a person familiar with the matter.

Robinson is one of 15 ousted employees who also include Bill Kemp, a senior lawyer who was responsible for safety issues within GM’s legal department, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the matter is private.

Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra announced the dismissals yesterday, without naming names, after the company released the results of an internal investigation into why it took GM more than a decade to identify problems with a defective ignition switch. The probe, led by former U.S. prosecutor Anton Valukas, blamed a lack of urgency in the engineering and legal departments yet didn’t reveal any conspiracy to cover up facts. Barra herself was held blameless.

Robinson privately urged another GM employee, Gay Kent, to push back against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s concerns that the automaker was responding too slowly to recalls, according to e-mails released by Congress in April. Kent also was dismissed, the person said.

Documents released in April, which included an e-mail chain with Robinson, pointed to a history of contentiousness between GM and its regulator that continued beyond the automaker’s bailout by U.S. taxpayers.

Regulator’s Complaint

In July 2013, less than a year before GM’s recall, the head of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation, Frank Borris, complained to Carmen Benavides, then GM’s director of product investigations, about the automaker’s response to recalls. Benavides was also among the 15 ousted, according to one person.

“The general perception is that GM is slow to communicate, slow to act, and, at times, requires additional effort of ODI that we do not feel is necessary with some of your peers,” Borris said.

The note got a rapid reaction from Robinson, according to the documents.

“This note from NHTSA, both the content and the tone, comes like a bolt out of the blue,” Robinson said. “We need to address this immediately and I would like to discuss. We worked way too hard to earn a reputation as the best, and we are not going to let this slide.”

Also included in the e-mail chain was Kemp and engineers Jim Federico and John Calabrese, who announced their retirements before the release of the report. GM previously said those moves were not related to the recall, and Federico took a new job with Harley Davidson Inc.

Newspaper Columnist

GM’s internal investigation conducted by Valukas also found that Kemp worked in 2005 to blunt a report of a coming Cleveland Plain Dealer story about the Chevrolet Cobalt stalling, suggesting they give the columnist a videotape demonstrating the unlikeliness of such a failure. Another lawyer responded that she wasn’t optimistic they could come up with something compelling.

“We can’t stand hearing, after the article is published, that we didn’t do enough to defend a brand new launch,” Kemp wrote in an e-mail time-stamped 5:18 a.m. on June 23, 2005.

The Valukas report says GM’s top lawyer, Michael Millikin, didn’t know about the Cobalt problems before 2014. GM, for example, settled a case for $5 million, the highest amount company lawyers could resolve litigation for without seeking Millikin’s approval. Millikin learned in December 2013 that a possible recall was under consideration. He didn’t learn the facts underlying the recall until Feb. 6, 2014, the report said.

No Explanation

“Kemp acknowledged that he could not explain why he had not raised the Cobalt safety issue with Millikin before then,” the report said.

A voice mail at a telephone number associated with Kemp was full yesterday, and he didn’t immediately respond to personal e-mails associated with his name. A home phone number for Robinson couldn’t immediately be found for comment. A GM spokesman declined to make him available.

A disproportion number of the 15 who left were in senior or executive roles, Barra told reporters yesterday.

Ray DeGiorgio, the engineer in charge of the flawed part, and Gary Altman, a program engineering manager, were among the 15 employees leaving the company, said another person familiar with the matter. Both DeGiorgio and Altman previously had been suspended with pay as Valukas conducted his investigation.

Lawrence Buonomo, the administrative head of in-house litigation, was also among the employees dismissed, the person said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.