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GM hires Clinton administration crisis expert for recall aid

General Motors has retained crisis-communications expert Jeff Eller as it builds a team to help respond to the recall of small cars with faulty ignition switches tied to 13 deaths.

Greg Martin, a spokesman for the Detroit-based company, confirmed that Eller will join the team guiding the automaker’s response to the recall. Eller had been director of media affairs in the Clinton White House, according to his LinkedIn page.

GM is adding experts with a history of managing crisis situations as it seeks to repair its reputation. This week, the company hired Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who managed funds for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to consider whether to compensate crash victims. Jenner & Block Chairman Anton Valukas, who prepared the report on the Lehman Brothers Holdings’ bankruptcy, recently joined GM to co-lead the internal probe of who knew what and when, about the ignition flaws.

“As we have from the start, we are drawing upon those who have deep experience and expertise in these matters,” Martin, the GM spokesman, said in an email Thursday.

Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra fielded pointed questions and accusations Wednesday from senators during a committee hearing on why it took the company so long to recall 2.59 million small cars with potentially faulty parts. One senator said GM had a “culture of coverup” and another predicted it may face criminal liability.

“Getting new outside perspective and breaking that group think is an important statement of building trust,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a business professor at Yale University, said in a telephone interview.

Barra will have to appear before the Senate panel again, said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

“We haven’t heard the end of this yet,” said Heller, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce subcommittee probing the recall. “They’re going to have to come back, and Barra said she would.”

Barra was joined at the hearings this week by Mark Reuss, head of product development; Grace Lieblein, head of purchasing; and Bob Ferguson, head of Cadillac and former head of the company’s lobbying office. She was also joined by Michael Millikin, GM’s general counsel, and Selim Bingol, head of both communication and public policy.

“She’s put her A-Team on this,” Sonnenfeld said. “On top of that they’ve brought in these very clean, independent-minded outsiders whose reputations are way too strong to worry about needing to cater to any imperative to protect rather than to surface the truth.”

Eller worked on the Clinton-Gore campaign team in 1992 before serving in the White House, according to his LinkedIn page. In 1994, he joined Public Strategies, a consulting firm with experience in public relations, according to a bio that had been on the company’s website earlier today and later appeared to have been removed. Eller left Public Strategies at the end of last month, said Rebecca Ballard, a spokeswoman for Hill and Knowlton.

“He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to our clients in the areas of campaign and crisis management,” Eller’s bio said.

A lengthy 1994 Forbes magazine article about his days in the White House describes him as possibly the “the most linked, multiplexed, plugged-in human on the planet – or at least in politics.”

GM spent more money than any other auto manufacturer on lobbying last year, and was among the top 50 spenders of any group in Washington, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based non-profit. The company kept a stable of 48 lobbyists on call, paying them $8.82 million to pressuring the federal government.

The team included 12 in-house lobbyists plus at least nine outside firms, including one headed by Kenneth Duberstein, a former chief of staff in the Reagan White House. The full cadre of lobbyists also included former Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles and two former members of the House, Deborah Pryce and Henry Bonilla.

– With assistance from Laura Litvan and Annie Linskey in Washington.

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