Germany's ADAC automotive club falsified the data of an annual survey for a members' choice award. A senior official has resigned and there are even calls to break up the club.
Its nearly 19 million members mean Germany's ADAC is the second-biggest automotive club worldwide - behind its United States counterpart AAA, which has 45 million members.
The ADAC represents drivers and advises members on all aspects of automotive travel. Its experts are often vocal about issues such as gas prices, road chargesand other important political issues.
With its 40 different units ranging from insurance to mobile phone services, it is also a commercial operation. Despite its wide reach and influence, it has rarely been in the firing line.
But on Sunday (19.1.2014), the club admitted that it increased the number of votes cast in this year's favorite car survey, resulting in the resignation of Michael Rammstetter, the club's head of communications. Rammstetter accepted sole responsibility for the incident and said he "messed up big-time."
The club awarded its "Yellow Angel" for Germany's favorite car to VW's Gold last Thursday (16.01.2014) - Volkswagen has said it is considering giving it back. ADAC rigged the numbers, saying that 34,299 motorists had voted for the Golf when it had only been 3,409 votes.
Now, the club even says the annual survey's data may have been manipulated several years in a row, not just this year. "We strongly suspect that the number of votes submitted for the favorite-car survey was falsified in previous years too," Karl Obermair, executive chairman, ADAC said in a statement on the club's website. The club has apologized, and says an internal investigation is underway.
More 'modesty' in order
German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt urged the club to "communicate openly." He said that "trust has, of course, been lost in this affair, and you can only win it back by laying your cards on the table."
He also said that, in general, big associations like the ADAC would do well to be "a bit more modest at times."
Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a professor and automotive expert at the University of Duisburg-Essen, went a step further in demanding that the club separate its roadside assistance program from its subsidiaries.
"The ADAC's system and structure means the club is not transparent and it shouldn't carry on in its current form," he told DW. "Even now, the statistics [from the manipulated survey] have not been published, why haven't they done this?" he asked.
As the voice of German drivers, Dudenhöffer said, the ADAC is a major lobbyist, which uses its clout to influence political decisions - and not always in accordance with its members. "18.9 million of the 19 million members are only in the club for the roadside assistance, which is included in the membership," Dudenhöffer told DW.
Take alcohol limits: according to a poll by Dimap, 78 percent of ADAC members are in favor of introducing a 0-percent alcohol limit. But the club is officially against it.
But Christian Schaaf, a security consultant at Corporate Trust who used to work for the German police fighting corporate crime, does not believe the ADAC has systemic, structural issues.
"These days, when you look at corruption in a company, you often see individuals acting alone," he told DW. "You really have to be careful not to pass judgement on the entire company."
He did, however, say he was "dismayed" when he heard the news, as the ADAC has always been "one of the very trustworthy associations in Germany." That's why an independent investigation should be carried out, he added.
It started with motorbikes
The ADAC was founded 110 years ago in the southwestern city of Stuttgart as a federation of motorcyclists. Its current name was introduced in 1911. Today, the club comprises the main association as well as 40 subsidiaries, which are mostly run as limited liability companies.
Last year, the subsidiaries had revenues of 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) and turned a profit of 60 to 70 million euros. "While the club speaks for its members, the limited companies of course want to be economically successful," ADAC spokesperson Christian Garrels told DW last week.
Dudenhöffer says there is a conflict of interest, calling it "absurd" for example that the ADAC provides breakdown services for automobile manufacturers while at the same time publishing supposedly independent reviews on the models produced by some of these manufacturers.
Schaaf believes the ADAC can be profit-oriented and still trustworthy, as well. "Every company that wants to be successful today needs to be business-oriented. I think the services and products ADAC offers are important and perfectly okay," he told DW.
"The question is how to handle these statistics and surveys, and if that may be the crucial issue. It doesn't mean you have to break up the company, that's not the right path."