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DETROIT — General Motors faced more pressure over its handling of a deadly defect in certain compact cars Tuesday as word leaked of a criminal investigation and two congressional committees started looking into the matter.

The Justice Department is investigating whether GM broke any laws with its slow response to a problem with ignition switches in compact cars from model years 2003 to 2007, a person briefed on the matter said. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York is handling the probe.

At issue is why GM waited until February to recall 1.6 million older-model compact cars even though it admitted knowing about the problem for a decade. The faulty ignition switches have been tied to 31 crashes and 13 deaths. Congress also wants to know why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) didn’t act sooner.

GM announced last month it will replace ignition switches that can shut off car motors unexpectedly. The problem can cause drivers to lose power-assisted steering and brakes and lose control of the cars.

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The NHTSA already has demanded information from GM about when it knew of the ignition problem. The agency could fine GM up to $35 million for a delayed response. Automakers must report safety problems to the NHTSA within five days of learning about them.

GM said in a statement that it’s cooperating with NHTSA and Congress.

On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). Two weeks later, it added 842,000 Saturn Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007).

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