Democrats Want Jail Time for Corporate Executives Hiding Safety Risks

GM CEO Mary Barra is sworn in to a Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in June. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A group of Democratic senators wants corporate officers to risk jail time for concealing safety threats from the public and government regulators.  

The legislation comes as part of the ongoing fallout from General Motors' faulty ignition switches, during what's looking to be a difficult week in the Senate for the auto giant.  

On Wednesday, Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania unveiled new legislation designed to provide for prison time for corporate executives who knowingly conceal risks of serious injury or death as a result of their products. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is also involved in the effort.  

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will chair a Commerce subcommittee hearing Thursday to review the response to the ignition switches. Witnesses include Kenneth Feinberg, who has announced the compensation plan for victims of the defect. In addition, top executives from GM and Delphi are scheduled to appear.  

Casey opened his remarks by highlighting Blumenthal's long record of advocacy on consumer protection during his long tenure as Connecticut's state attorney general.  

"What this legislation will do, among other things, is to impose a measure of accountability which we shouldn't have to impose. They should do this on their own," Casey said. "They shouldn't conceal. They shouldn't sit on information for weeks or months or sometimes decades."  

"We're talking here not only about GM, but about other companies in very recent years, including Toyota, Vioxx, Simplicity cribs, various — a list that we could give you of corporate cover-ups and other kinds of defects that have not been disclosed," Blumenthal said.  

Blumenthal noted that criminal punishments could not be imposed retroactively, but he expressed a hope that the Justice Department will seek to use existing law to bring charges where warranted.  

Asked about another type of business practice: the concealing of health risks, Blumenthal said the legislation would also apply to cases like cigarette manufacturers.  

"As you know, the tobacco companies did studies and research and tests that showed in fact that they were causing cancer and other diseases. They denied it, publicly," Blumenthal said. "That kind of concealment would also be covered by this law."  

"The punishments under this law would be significant. Five years in prison for each violation.