By Lewis Krauskopf
NEW YORK (Reuters) - General Motors Co (GM) Chief Executive Mary Barra said she "agonized" over last week's decision to put two GM engineers on paid leave pending the outcome of an investigation into faulty ignition switches linked to at least 13 deaths.
Barra's comments, made to reporters on Tuesday after an industry conference ahead of the New York Auto Show, referred to Ray DeGiorgio and Gary Altman, two engineers involved in the development of the defective switches, which are being replaced in 2.6 million recalled GM vehicles.
"There was a lot of attention, and we agonized over that decision, but we felt it was right for the individuals and right for the company at this time," she said of DeGiorgio, who designed the switch, and Altman, who was the program engineering manager for the recalled cars.
GM has not explained why the men were suspended, and the two have not responded to Reuters requests for comment.
In the wake of the recall, announced in several waves in February and March, Barra said on Tuesday that GM is creating a new global product integrity organization that will focus on product safety and quality. It will report to Jeff Boyer, who was named the chief of vehicle safety in mid-March, and Mark Reuss, GM's global product development chief.
"This new way of developing vehicles will provide the highest levels of safety, quality, and customer service, and ensure that a situation like the ignition-switch recall doesn't happen again," Barra said in New York.
The automaker is on track to complete its own investigation of the recall by the middle to the end of May, Barra said. The internal probe is being headed by Anton Valukas, chief executive of Chicago law firm Jenner & Block, which has done legal work for GM for more than 10 years.
"When Mr. Valukas has completed his investigation, we will then take the appropriate actions and then, as I've said, we will be transparent. So that's where we're at," Barra said.
Congress also is investigating the recall, and a group of U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday wrote to Delphi Automotive(DLPH.N), asking whether the parts maker had pushed back when the automaker apparently did not accept a proposed fix to the ignition switch.
Barra said a team at GM is working around the clock to answer questions asked by the U.S. National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration on the ignition switch defect issue.
Last week, NHTSA said GM did not answer more than a third of the 107 questions the safety regulator asked. GM faces a $7,000-per-day fine since the April 3 deadline for not responding to all questions.
She said GM may wait for the completion of Valukas' investigation before answering some of NHTSA's questions.
Barra spoke at an auto industry conference held by the National Automobile Dealers Association and J.D. Power.
(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit; Editing by Bernard Orr and Peter Henderson)