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Justice probes GM response to ignition flaw

Joyce Destefano knew there was something wrong with her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt two years ago.

She says nobody listened.

The 59-year-old Fort Wayne businesswoman said she filed complaints with General Motors Co. and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about her vehicle’s ignition switch.

Destefano said GM failed to contact her, and the safety agency basically said take a number.

“I feel so abused, so betrayed, so … I don’t know what other words to use,” said Destefano, who owns a residential and commercial cleaning company. “I trusted them, and they had nothing to say to me.”

They will have to do some talking now. A person briefed on the matter says the Justice Department is investigating whether General Motors broke any laws with its slow response to a deadly problem with ignition switches on certain cars.

The probe is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the investigation is not public.

A Justice Department spokesman did not immediately return calls. GM would not comment. The automaker produces Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups at its Allen County truck plant.

Last month, GM announced the recall of 1.6 million older compact cars worldwide to replace ignition switches that can shut off the motor unexpectedly. GM says the problem is linked to 13 deaths.

A House committee has launched an investigation into how the automaker and federal regulators handled the recall of vehicles.

As part of the probe, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing in the coming weeks to determine whether there was a delay in GM’s recall of 1.6 million vehicles with the faulty part, said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the panel’s chairman.

The committee also will look into the response of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the face of consumer complaints.

Destefano said no one should be above suspicion.

“The (NHTSA) wants to go after GM, but if you ask me, the government needs to be looked into as well,” she said, referring to the safety agency’s investigation into the automaker. “I knew, I knew, I knew this was a manufacturing defect and not just a bad part on my car.”

Agency documents show that GM knew of the ignition-switch defect as far back as 2004 but didn’t issue the recall until last month.

“Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner?” Upton said.

“If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened, and then determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended,” he said.

Upton sponsored legislation, enacted in 2000, designed to get automakers and regulators to move more quickly to recall vehicles and parts with safety defects.

Russ Crumback is general manager of Crumback Chevrolet in New Haven. He knows there will be considerable backlash over the issue.

“Anything that gives the public reason to pause is a chink in your armor,” Crumback said. “(GM) just needs to deal with it straight on and alleviate any concerns people have. The main thing is to make sure we can accommodate customers and have the ability to fix and remedy the problem.”

Crumback sales manager Kenny Barr said that will take some doing.

“If I put my customer’s shoes on, I wouldn’t be too thrilled about this, either,” Barr said, adding that the part to fix the problem could arrive next month. “There are some angry people out there. There will be people shaking their receipts at you.”

Barr said it could cost $300 to $400 to correct each defect.

On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). Two weeks later, it added 842,000 Saturn Ion compacts (2003-2007) and Chevrolet HHR SUVs, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007).

Destefano said she has no intention of buying a new car.

“My friends keep telling me to go out and get a Honda,” she said. “I don’t have the money to buy a new car. GM knew about this. It’s criminal negligence.”

For more information from GM, visit www.gmignitionupdate.com.

pwyche@jg.net

The Los Angeles Times and Associated Press contributed to this story.

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