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VW's ex-CEO grilled over Dieselgate

Former Volkswagen boss Martin Winterkorn has told a parliamentary inquiry that he didn't know of the carmaker's emissions cheating before the scam broke. He stands accused of colluding to cover up the scandal.

Winterkorn told a parliamentary committee on Thursday that "total clarity was and is the order of the day", and that he was still trying to understand how the scandal could have happened.

Winterkorn resigned in September 2015, days after the VW group admitted it had installed software in 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide to cheat on emissions tests and make the cars seem less polluting than they were.

Once known as a perfectionist with the nickname "Mr. Quality," Winterkorn has always claimed he knew nothing of the pollution scam - a point he reiterated during the hearing on Thursday. 

Upon being asked whether he thought the diesel cheating could still be blamed on just a few engineers, Winterkorn acknowledged that it was more than a handful of staffers who knew but said he did not know how many people were involved. Asked why he himself had no earlier knowledge, Winterkorn said: "Software applications represent a very specific area of work in engine development."

In recent weeks, however, doubts have emerged about his version. US investigators have increased pressure on the German car group, alleging that VW top brass were aware of the cheating as far back as July 2015. They have arrested VW executive Oliver Schmidt, formerly responsible for US compliance issues, and charged him with fraud and conspiracy over the Dieselgate controversy.

Essential evidence

The German parliamentary committee said the arrest of the manager and his declarations were "relevant" to its work. Herbert Behrens, who heads the committee, said in a statement that this was "essential to establish when the VW board was informed" of the cheating.     

According to the FBI, Schmidt and other Volkswagen employees briefed senior executives about the defeat device at the company's German headquarters in July 2015, saying regulators were not aware of the mechanism.

"Rather than advocate for disclosure of the defeat device to US regulators, VW executive management authorized its continued concealment," the FBI said.

Watch video 00:59

VW settles with US justice department

As a result of the US investigation, Volkswagen has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States as well as to obstruction of justice for destroying documents related to the scheme. Part of the deal was a payment of $4.3 billion (4 billion euros) in civil and criminal fines.

But according to the final settlement, the group didn't clarify who within the company holds responsibility for the scandal.

Chain of responsibility

The German inquiry seeks to establish exactly who was responsible for the emissions scam. It is also looking at the allegation of fraud in the sales of vehicles with manipulated emission values.

In addition, prosecutors are examining if management had divulged the existence of the scandal later than they were legally obliged to under stock market rules, thereby essentially manipulating stock prices.

More than 1,400 shareholders are also suing for damages worth a total of 8 billion euros after the announcement of the scam wiped out some 40 percent of VW's market capitalization in days.

VW has so far maintained its timeline of events, saying that top management was informed about the scandal only at "the end of August, early September 2015." But German media have reported that a meeting organized by VW management on July 27, 2015, and attended by Winterkorn already raised "the fact that something illegal had been installed in our vehicles."

uhe/jd (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

 

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