Opinion: The lies of Martin Winterkorn

The indictment of ex-Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn is the next logical step in the aftermath of the company's emissions-cheating scandal. DW's Henrik Böhme thinks the man should now come clean.
Henrik Böhme (hg)
Henrik Böhme (hg)

It was only a matter of time. Volkswagen Group officials can keep saying how things are looking up, while hyping the company's bright electric future, but the past will haunt them for quite a while. After the scandal over VW's large-scale emissions-cheating tests broke in 2015, prosecutors in Braunschweig, Germany, needed a lot of time to study the overwhelming amount of documents related to Dieselgate.

 And now they've finally brought charges against Winterkorn, who headed the company when the scam became known publicly. They also indicted four other persons, presumably from Winterkorn's inner circle, but didn't disclose their names right away.

The charges brought against Winterkorn are not to be taken lightly. Prosecutors are talking of severe fraud and a violation of national competition laws, and they're talking of embezzlement, tax evasion and false certification. There's a lot to do for Winterkorn's lawyers who will have to fight on several fronts at the same time. The US has already issued an arrest warrant against him, and the SEC financial watchdog charged Winterkorn a month ago for what it believes boiled down to cheating investors.

VW image suffering

For VW, it's now also getting too close for comfort in Germany. Although the carmaker is most likely not in for the same magnitude of fines as imposed by the US ($30 billion, €26.5 billion), the company's image is suffering heavily from ongoing litigation battles. Every time nasty headlines about VW crop up again, potential car buyers will be reminded of the cheats there.

DW business editor Henrik Böhme

It's not just about Winterkorn and the four others in the dock in Germany. Braunschweig prosecutors are investigating a total of 36 people including the former chief financial officer at VW, Hans Dieter Pötsch (who now heads the supervisory board). Also in the crosshairs is VW's current CEO, Herbert Diess. On top of that, investors have teamed up for a class action suit to establish their right to compensation worth billions of euros.

Tell the truth!

In a nutshell, the road toward VW's electric future is being marred by court trials. How will Germany's best-paid pensioner (Winterkorn gets €1,300 daily) peform before the judges? Will he plead guilty or keep telling people he didn't know anything about any emissions-cheating tests?

So far, he's been muddling through doing the latter. Winterkorn had made a name for himself by knowing every technical detail about "his" cars, and yet he didn't ask any questions why Volkswagen's diesel cars were suddenly so clean. If the man wants to rescue anything from his lifetime's work, he should finally start telling the truth.

Dieselgate: A timeline

The disaster unfolds

About two weeks after Volkswagen admitted behind closed doors to US environmental regulators that it had installed cheating software in some 11 million of its diesel vehicles worldwide, the Environmental Protection Agency shared that information with the public. It was September 18, 2015. The ensuing crisis would eventually take a few unexpected turns.

Dieselgate: A timeline

The boss must go, long live the boss

Volkswagen's then-CEO Martin Winterkorn (above) had little choice but to step down several days after news of the scandal broke. In September, he tendered his resignation, but retained his other posts within the Volkswagen Group. Winterkorn's successor was Matthias Müller. Until taking the reins at VW, Müller had been the chairman at Porsche, a VW subsidiary.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Raiding headquarters

Regulators in the US weren't the only ones investigating VW. Authorities in Lower Saxony, the German state in which VW is based, were also scrutinizing the company. On October 8, state prosecutors raided VW's headquarters along with several other corporate locations.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Hell breaks loose

On January 4, 2016, the US government filed a lawsuit against VW in Detroit, accusing the German automaker of fraud and violations of American climate protection regulations. The lawsuit sought up to $46 billion for violations of the Clean Air Act.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Quit or forced out?

In March, the head of VW in the US, Michael Horn, resigned. In the initial days and weeks after the scandal broke, he was the one US authorities turned to for information. He issued an official apology on behalf of the automaker, asking for the public's forgiveness.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Settlement

On October 25, a US judge approved a final settlement that would have VW pay $15.3 billion. In addition, affected cars would be retrofitted with better, non-deceptive hardware and software, or else VW would buy them back completely from customers.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Imitators

When dieselgate first emerged in 2015, analysts said it was likely other car makers were also cheating tests. But it wasn't until 2017 that other companies were targeted in probes. In July, German authorities launched investigations into luxury car makers Porsche and Daimler for allegedly cheating emissions tests. Others, such as Audi and Chrysler, have also been hit by similar allegations.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Public still supportive

Despite dieselgate, VW has managed to keep the emissions scandal from utterly tarnishing its image. According to several polls, between 55 to 67 percent of Germans continue to trust the automaker. In the US, polls show that roughly 50 percent still believe the German company produces worthwhile vehicles.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Fuming over monkeys

In late January, however, VW suffered another heavy blow over reports that the company experimented on monkeys and made the animals inhale diesel fumes. To make matters worse, a separate experiment that had humans inhale relatively harmless nitrogen dioxide was revealed at the same time. Some media wrongly interpreted this to mean humans were also inhaling toxic fumes.

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