More than most Americans, Western New Yorkers have cause to be furious about the lethal deceptions General Motors ran on its customers, the Congress and the public. Not only were they every bit as exposed to injury or death as other Americans, but the region has supported the company, and relied on it, as an influential part of its economy.
GM didn’t care about that; it cared only about not getting caught. So company leaders lied. They deceived. They knowingly put their own customers at risk of injury and death and, thus, put the company itself at risk of destruction.
And, incredibly, it did all of this even as American taxpayers were forking over millions of dollars to keep the company afloat as the Great Recession washed away its economic foundation. For the sake of its employees and the regional economies that the company supports, we hope it survives. But it was playing with a loaded weapon and among its victims is its own reputation and maybe even its survival.
The stories only become more disturbing. Recently, the New York Times reported that in responding to regulators investigating unexplained crashes of GM vehicles, company officials dissembled, claiming not to know what the cause could be, even though a company engineer, Manuel Peace, had already determined that at least one crash was likely due to the engine shutting off.
Whatever their motivation was, it didn’t work. The company is now the target of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, looking into whether GM obscured a deadly defect during its interaction with regulators – a defect that may have injured hundreds of people.
The company will probably survive. Other large organizations, including the Catholic Church, have been able to weather terrible scandals. They are old enough, entrenched enough and connected enough to outlast the inquiries, the loss of stature and even the penalties to which they may be appropriately subjected.
But, assuming the facts are as they seem, the penalties for concealing deadly defects should be severe and could justly include prison time for individuals involved in this shameful episode.
General Motors says it has learned its lesson and is reforming its corrupted culture. That’s fine and even appropriate. But killers often find religion after they’re caught and it’s never enough to prevent them from paying the price for despicable acts. It shouldn’t prevent it in this case, either.