Senate bill would punish corporate executives who conceal product dangers
GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra (C), Mark Reuss (L), Executive Vice President, and Dan Ammann (R), President, hold a press conference on June 5, 2014 in Warren, Michigan [AFP]

By Emily Stephenson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. senators on Wednesday unveiled a bill prompted by the General Motors Co recalls over defective ignition switches that would make it a crime for corporate officers to conceal dangers posed by their products.

Democratic senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said their proposal calls for up to five years in prison and fines for officers who know their products could cause death or injury to consumers or workers and hide that information.

"Corporate concealment can kill, and corporate officers who engage in concealment must be held accountable," Blumenthal said at a news conference.

Federal prosecutors are building a criminal fraud case based on whether GM made misleading statements about a flawed ignition switch in some of its vehicles, which has been linked to at least 16 deaths and 61 crashes.

It is not clear whether prosecutors will bring cases against any individuals.

The lawmakers said GM officers knew as early as 2004 about the defects but failed to issue recalls until 2014. GM Chief Executive Mary Barra has said she did not know the scope of the problem until Januaruy of this year.

GM's internal investigation, prepared by Anton Valukas, chairman of GM's outside law firm Jenner & Block, largely exonerated top executives. Instead, Valukas blamed lower-level lawyers and engineers for failing to properly flag the issue and not connecting air bag failures to the ignition switch defect.

Valukas, Barra and GM General Counsel Michael Millikin will testify about the recalls before a Senate committee on Thursday.

Other companies have come under similar scrutiny recently. Toyota Motor Corp settled with the U.S. Justice Department for $1.2 billion after it was revealed the carmaker knew about problems that caused vehicles to accelerate unexpectedly but downplayed the information to safety regulators.

Blumenthal said even if Congress approved his bill, the tougher penalties would not apply to GM executives. He said he thought existing criminal law covered GM's activity, and his new proposal would serve as a deterrent to future wrongdoing.

"Corporations paying fines are an insufficient deterrent. We should have learned that corporate fines simply fail to provide the strong, effective message that some corporate officers need to hear and feel," he said.

The bill, which was co-sponsored by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, also provides some legal protections for officers who notify their regulators and consumers about the problems.

(Editing by Karey Van Hall and Matthew Lewis)