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Lower Saxony premier says VW vetted Dieselgate speech

The premier of one of Germany's biggest states says he allowed Volkswagen to vet a 2015 speech about the automaker's emissions fraud. For nearly 60 years, VW has been given special status under the law in Lower Saxony.

Lower Saxony's state premier partially denied a report in Sunday's Bild newspaper that he softened speeches critical of Volkswagen's diesel emissions fraud at the company's request.

However, Stephan Weil's office has confirmed that the state premier sent the speech to VW's chief lobbyist and lawyers for vetting before he delivered it. According to Weil's office, with US lawsuits pending, he wanted "to ensure that no legally or factually inaccurate statements were made."

A VW employee reportedly told Bild that Volkswagen "rewrote and watered down" Weil's October 2015 speech to the state legislature about the company's dangerous diesel fraud. "This was no fact check," the employee told Bild.

In the speech, Weil called VW "a pearl of German industry."

High penalties

VW executive Oliver Schmidt, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the US government and violating the Clean Air Act, faces up to $750,000 (637,000 euros) in fines and seven years in prison. In 2016, some top VW managers accepted cuts to their bonuses. The fraud has cost VW as much as $25 billion so far, though Volkswagen reported sales revenue of 217.3 billion euros ($256 billion) for 2016.

Though the industry has attempted to dismiss the issue, diesel fumes are a major contributor to global climate change and, more immediately, to cancers and cardiovascular conditions such as asthma. The overall environmental and public health effects of VW's fudged numbers have not yet been calculated.

Connections between German politicians and the auto industry

Several top German politicians have connections to the auto industry

Industry's long tentacles

Advocates have questioned whether the close ties between politicians and German carmakers have prevented the government from acting sooner to address the widening emissions fraud. Critics have also blasted the outcome of last week's diesel summit, saying that instead of insisting on harsher steps to rein in diesel emissions, German leaders have allowed lobbyists to sway them into adopting less onerous measures.

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Diesel summit: Solution or stunt?

Politicians who have or have had consulting agreements with VW and other car industry behemoths include Daimler's chief lobbyist, Eckart von Klaeden, a Christian Democrat who worked under Merkel in the chancellery until 2013. His abrupt switch to the Mercedes manufacturer prompted an investigation by Berlin prosecutors and new rules on "cooling off" periods before politicians can make the common leap from governance and regulation to lucrative lobbying gigs. Top VW lobbyist Thomas Steg served as Lower Saxony's government spokesman until 2009.

Former Transportation Minister Matthias Wissmann has presided over the VDA auto industry lobby since 2007. Current ministry head Alexander Dobrindt has come under increasing pressure to explain how the German automaker was allowed to perpetuate international fraud under his watch.

Cem Ozdemir, Germany's top Greens politician, said the "conflation of politics and automotive industry" could damage the country's reputation and pose a "threat to the foundation of our market economy."

mkg/tj (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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