June 18, 2014
Former employee “felt like he’d been punched in the gut” after reading Valukas Report
Every day, a number of articles are run within the automotive media addressing yet another new recall on General Motors vehicles, with affected units now easily reaching the millions.
There may be a reason for all these recalls, as Bloomberg Businessweek says General Motors actively silenced at least one whistle-blower when he had safety concerns.
In this week’s cover story, Businessweek tells the story of Courtland Kelley, a former GM employee of 30 years, who tried to sue the company back in 2003.
It was close to 3 a.m. on June 6 when Courtland Kelley burst into his bedroom, startling his wife awake. General Motors (GM), 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.
Kelley had sued GM in 2003, alleging that the company had dragged its feet addressing dangers in its cars and trucks. Even though he lost, Kelley thought that by blowing the whistle he’d done the right thing and paved the way for other GMers to speak up. Now he saw that he’d had the opposite impact: His loss, and the way his career had stalled afterward, taught others at the company to stay quiet. “He stood in the doorway of our bedroom with a stunned look on his face,” Beth Kelley, his wife of 23 years, says. “Maybe we’re just extremely naive, but we really thought that since this all happened, that something good would come out of it.”
You’ll have to visit Businessweek to read the rest. But, what has been described as incompetence from GM as a whole is looking more like active negligence more and more each day.