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Delphi CEO on U.S. Senate panel hot seat in GM probe

2006 ignition GM ignition switch and a newer version. Reuters/Michael Spooneybarger
2006 ignition GM ignition switch and a newer version. Reuters/Michael Spooneybarger

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of Delphi Automotive Plc, maker of ignition switches linked to at least 16 fatal car crashes, is expected to face intensive questioning next week from a U.S. Senate panel investigating General Motors Co' handling of the issue.

A Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, scheduled for July 17, will mark the first appearance by an executive of the switch manufacturer before committees investigating GM. Delphi has been named as a co-defendant along with GM in some personal injury lawsuits filed by accident victims and their families.

Delphi CEO Rodney O'Neal is expected to join GM CEO Mary Barra at the witness table along with GM's chief counsel Michael Milliken. The witness list includes Kenneth Feinberg, who helped GM establish a victims compensation fund, and Anton Valukas, who recently issued a report detailing GM decade of inaction in recalling millions of automobiles to fix the safety defect.

Barra testified at the first subcommittee hearing on April 14 and faced often hostile questioning from Democrats and Republicans on the panel.

Shortly afterward, four senators on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, including Chairman Jay Rockefeller, wrote O'Neal demanding information on Delphi's role in the ignition switch problem.

"It is our understanding that a fix was proposed by Delphi regarding the ignition switch in 2005 but GM did not adopt the change," wrote Rockefeller and Senators John Thune, Claire McCaskill and Dean Heller.

The ignition defect has caused GM vehicles, including Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions, to unexpectedly stall. That, in turn, has caused air bags to fail to deploy during crashes.

The senators have asked Delphi to provide documents and information on why GM may have rejected the ignition switch redesign and whether Delphi communicated with federal regulators.

The U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee is also investigating GM and has held two hearings with Barra testifying.

A committee aide said on Tuesday that Delphi has submitted approximately 7,500 pages of documents in the probe and that the company is continuing to produce more documents.

The aide would not say whether Delphi officials have been interviewed by committee investigators.

O'Neal rose through the ranks of GM before moving to Delphi, which was part of GM before it was spun off as an independent company.

O'Neal and Barra both graduated from Kettering University, the General Motors institute, and worked in GM production before climbing the executive ranks.

Delphi currently has 160,000 employees, 126 manufacturing sites and 15 technical centers in 32 countries.

In 2006, a GM engineer authorized Delphi to change the internal workings of the switch, but the part number was not changed, a departure from industry procedures.

The Senate committee has asked Delphi whether GM engineers or others attempted to conceal the change.

Since taking the reins at GM early this year, Barra has announced steps to improve GM's corporate culture, which has been blamed for allowing the safety problem to fester.

(Reporting By Richard Cowan; Editing by Marilyn Thompson and David Gregorio)

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