General Motors just gave attorney Anton Valukas a tall order and a short deadline.
GM said Monday it had hired Valukas, who probed Lehman Brothers Holdings’ 2008 downfall, to help lead an internal investigation into design failures tied to at least 13 deaths dating back a decade. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has given GM, the biggest U.S. automaker by sales, until April 3 to say why it took so long to announce a recall of 1.6 million vehicles to fix the flaw.
Valukas will help with the NHTSA inquiry, according to GM, as well as run his own internal probe, for which GM hasn’t stated a deadline. He declined to comment on his hiring.
In Valukas, GM selected an attorney who battled Chicago corruption as a federal prosecutor in the 1980s, has defended big companies – including GM – and was appointed by the Justice Department to lead hundreds of attorneys in investigating the collapse of Lehman, the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history.
The 70-year-old chairman of Chicago-based Jenner & Block LLP is known for demanding thorough work on a tight schedule and having little patience for those who fall short, say attorneys who have worked with him.
It will take some hasty archaeology to dig through the layers of GM history that have accumulated over the past decade – a period that spanned five chief executives, a government-financed bankruptcy reorganization, a name change and forgiveness of past legal obligations.
Valukas is tasked with figuring out what went wrong with vehicles that were developed more than 10 years ago – including Chevrolet Cobalts and HHRs, Pontiac G5s and Solstices and Saturn Ions and Skys – and how the company handled complaints that GM has said started arriving as early as 2004.
It’s an elaborate system to understand and evaluate, said Tom Stallkamp, who was president at Chrysler when it was part of DaimlerChrysler and who left the automaker in 1999.
There’s already a sense that someone’s going to get in trouble for this, Stallkamp said. This guy is going to be looked at as doing a witch hunt, and so I don’t think he’s going to have an easy job.
In announcing its recall last month, GM said the ignition switches in some models could slip out of position when jarred or when a key attached to a heavy ring pulled it out of position. That, in turn, could cut power and deactivate air bags.
Valukas has represented companies in industries including finance, airlines and biotechnology.