Firings at GM spare its top lawyer

NEW YORK/DETROIT, June 5 Thu Jun 5, 2014 12:58pm EDT

NEW YORK/DETROIT, June 5 (Reuters) - The top lawyer at General Motors Co has survived the automaker's struggles over an ignition-switch defect, as a rash of firings announced on Thursday touched the corporate legal department he oversees.

Michael Millikin, GM's general counsel since 2009 and a key counselor to Chief Executive Mary Barra, was still on the job, Barra said in response to a reporter's question at an event in Warren, Michigan.

A report prepared by outside counsel and released on Thursday found that Millikin was among those who were unaware of problems with the switch until GM decided to issue a recall in January, Barra said.

The defect has been linked to at least 13 deaths.

In March, GM said Millikin would co-lead an internal inquiry into the defect with Anton Valukas, the chairman of Jenner & Block, a large, Chicago-based law firm.

Later, it became clear that Millikin's legal department was among the GM offices facing questions, and when the report came out on Thursday morning, Valukas was listed as the sole author.

A GM spokesman declined to elaborate on what role Millikin played in the internal investigation.

The legal department came under scrutiny after GM told U.S. safety regulators this year that its lawyers had "opened a file" in 2005 on a 16-year-old who died in Maryland in the crash of her Chevrolet Cobalt.

Investigators found that the ignition switch in her car had been turned off before the crash and that the air bag failed to deploy. The adoptive parents of the teenager, Amber Marie Rose, reached a private settlement with GM in February 2006.

Prior to the release of the report on Thursday, GM had not explained how the crash, investigation and settlement failed to lead to a wider recall.

Barra said there had been a pattern of "incompetence and neglect," and that 15 employees who acted inappropriately had been fired. She did not name individuals but said they worked in four departments, including legal.

Millikin has spent almost his entire career at GM, according to his company biography. He started there in 1977 after serving as a federal prosecutor in Detroit, and steadily advanced. He was based in Zurich from 1997 to 2000.

Jenner & Block has close ties to GM. It handled the company's $23 billion initial public offering of stock in 2010. Valukas served as lead counsel for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's four-year investigation of "old" GM's pension accounting, which concluded with no allegations of fraud or intentional misconduct.

A Jenner colleague, Robert Osborne, was GM's general counsel from 2006 to 2009, leading the automaker's Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Warren, Mich.; editing by Amy Stevens and Matthew Lewis)

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