By Bill Vlasic and Ben Protess

New York Times News Service

The Justice Department has begun a criminal investigation into General Motors’ decadelong failure to address deadly safety problems before announcing a huge vehicle recall last month, according to people briefed on the matter.

The preliminary inquiry by federal prosecutors in New York is focused on whether GM, the nation’s largest automaker, failed to comply with laws requiring timely disclosure of vehicle defects. The prosecutors, one of the people said, are questioning if GM misled federal regulators about the extent of the problems.

The investigation is the latest in a widening series of threats to GM over its handling of faulty ignition switches in its Chevrolet Cobalt sedan and other cars that the company says are linked to 31 accidents and 13 deaths.

On Tuesday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he would ask Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to hold hearings on a panel that oversees consumer product safety.

A House committee said on Monday that it would conduct its own investigation and hearings into events leading to GM’s recall of 1.6 million vehicles worldwide, and it sent letters demanding extensive records to the company and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

That agency is also investigating GM’s actions since the company first learned of possible defects in its ignition systems, in 2004.

The federal inquiry is the Justice Department’s latest move to investigate how automakers have responded to recalls.

The department, for example, is talking with Toyota about settling a four-year criminal investigation into how the Japanese automaker disclosed complaints related to unintended acceleration of its vehicles.