Skip to content
Subscriber Only

GM Recalls: How General Motors Silenced a Whistle-Blower

GM lifer Courtland Kelley spent years trying to warn the company about safety problems
In 2006 the wreck of a 2005 Cobalt killed two and injured one
In 2006 the wreck of a 2005 Cobalt killed two and injured onePhotograph by St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office/AP Photo

It was close to 3 a.m. on June 6 when Courtland Kelley burst into his bedroom, startling his wife awake. General Motors, Kelley’s employer for more than 30 years, had just released the results of an investigation into how a flawed ignition switch in the Chevrolet Cobalt could easily slip into the “off” position—cutting power, stalling the engine, and disabling airbags just when they’re needed most. The part has been linked to at least 13 deaths and 54 crashes. GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra, summoned before Congress in April to answer for the crisis, repeatedly declined to answer lawmakers’ questions before she had the company’s inquest in hand. Now it was out, and Kelley had stayed up to read all 325 pages on a laptop on the back porch of his rural home about 90 miles northwest of Detroit.

The “Valukas Report,” named for former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, who assembled it at GM’s request from interviews with 230 witnesses and 41 million documents, blamed a culture of complacency for the more than decade-long delay before the company recalled millions of faulty vehicles. It described employees passing the buck and committees falling back on the “GM nod”—when everyone in a meeting agrees that something should happen, and no one actually does it. On page 93, a GM safety inspector named Steven Oakley is quoted telling investigators that he was too afraid to insist on safety concerns with the Cobalt after seeing his predecessor “pushed out of the job for doing just that.” Reading the passage, Kelley felt like he’d been punched in the gut. The predecessor Oakley was talking about was Kelley.