Casey: Jail executives who conceal dangers

MOLLY RILEY / ASSOCIATED PRESS The ignition switch in some GM and Chrysler models can slip out of the "run" position and into the "accessory" or "off" position.

WASHINGTON -- With the General Motors scandal as a backdrop, Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) has signed onto a bill that could send executives to jail for up to five years if they conceal information about their products’ known dangers.

“What this legislation will do, among other things, is to impose a measure of accountability which we shouldn’t have to impose,” Casey said at a Wednesday news conference. “The reason for this is very simple: someone has knowledge of a defect or a problem, and that knowledge is not followed by action.”

Casey, a co-sponsor, unveiled the bill alongside Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), the measure’s original sponsor. Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) is also a co-sponsor.

Casey said G.M. is the most prominent recent example of a company withholding information about danger (it knew about a potentially deadly ignition switch defect for years but took no action), but he and Blumenthal cited Toyota and Vioxx – the pain relief drug made by Merck -- as other examples among many.

“It’s just not good enough for a company, whether it’s G.M. or any other company, to say, ‘I’m sorry’ and then have some kind of a meager fine, a minor fine imposed on them. That is not the definition of accountability,” Casey said. “These are individuals in many cases with tremendous power at their disposal and if they can act they can prevent those without power from being harmed, but sometimes they don’t.”

The bill would make it a crime for corporate officers to hide that a business action or product could cause death or serious injury. Officers would gain immunity if they notify regulatory agencies and individuals facing the danger.

Blumenthal and consumer advocates backing the bill said they hoped it would be a deterrent to executives who might shrug off fines as a cost of doing business.

“The prospect of imprisonment works as a deterrent. It may be the only deterrent a corporate officer understands,” Blumenthal said.

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