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Opinion: Scapegoat in VW's emissions scandal

Here it is again, the VW diesel crisis. Even if the German auto giant appears reformed and wants to look ahead, the legal processing in its Dieselgate scandal is only at a starting stage, says DW’s Henrik Böhme.

The decision to escape the German winter and relax under the Florida sun in those January days of 2017 was something Oliver Schmidt would have bitterly regretted long ago.

As he was about to fly back home from the airport in Miami, US authorities greeted him with handcuffs. What followed was a painful encounter with the rigors of US justice: high-security prisons, where he found himself in a cell with felons. But above all, Schmidt was abandoned by his employer.

A revealing mail

Oliver Schmidt has always maintained that he was an extremely loyal employee. He even celebrated his wedding at a VW dealership. This loyalty extended to being a loyal commander for what the company board in Wolfsburg wanted: to firmly position the diesel engine on the North American market and consequently achieve improved sales there.

But coming up with "clean" diesel models involved additional technical effort, and Martin Winterkorn — who at the time ruled over VW's automotive empire as chief executive — was not willing to put in this effort; instead the trickery that was engaged in has been well known for two years now.

And employees like Oliver Schmidt, who led the German automaker's US regulatory compliance office, were forced not to tell the truth. Schmidt no longer says that he was unaware of the manipulations; he was after all found guilty because of an email written by him in 2014, as the pressure from the US Environmental Protection Agency grew.

"It should first be decided whether we are honest. If we are not honest, everything stays as it is," Schmidt wrote to a colleague.

Boehme Henrik Kommentarbild App

DW business desk's Henrik Böhme

Winterkorn greets from the manager's paradise

In a red knight's suit, with ankle cuffs and in handcuffs: this was how the former VW employee was led into the courtroom to hear the verdict. There are no pictures of it, only accounts of those present. It is unfortunate that there are no pictures of it, as they might have given an added impetus for Winterkorn to consider becoming an honest person. The former CEO — who presented himself as a fastidious, detail-obsessed engineer — claims he did not know anything about the scandal at the time. After all this, Winterkorn still earns a daily pension of about €3,100 ($3,655).

Perhaps even former VW development head Heinz Jacob Neusser, whose name is on the FBI's wanted list, could also become honest. After his return to Wolfsburg in March 2015, Schmidt worked directly with Neusser. And Schmidt is believed to be the one who informed the VW leadership in July that year about the software manipulation.

But just as the boardroom in Wolfsburg ticked its time in its autocratic style, one should not expect the fate of Oliver Schmidt to prompt tears or a guilty conscience in the men Winterkorn, Neusser and associates.

After US Judge Sean Coxx delivered his verdict, one thing is clear: the legal processing in the biggest consumer fraud of all time is only at a starting stage. Even if VW has redeemed itself in the US by paying about $23 billion (€19.5 billion), and the recall and conversion operations are in full swing, this gloomy chapter will for a long time accompany the group on its way into the automotive future.

Here in Germany, the issue is on the backburner, when car buyers file suits in local courts about returning their diesel VW cars. But it may get more serious if and when courts in Stuttgart and Braunschweig start proceedings in the coming year. That could put Martin Winterkorn and his former colleagues in a tight spot. Then Oliver Schmidt could possibly endure his time in jail a little easier.

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