Opinion: Martin Winterkorn must come clean | Opinion | DW | 04.05.2018
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Opinion

Opinion: Martin Winterkorn must come clean

Former VW CEO Martin Winterkorn just became one of the most senior foreign executives to ever be charged with conspiracy and wire fraud by US prosecutors. But he is simply unable to accept blame, says DW's Henrik Böhme.

As if it had been planned all along, on Thursday evening at 9:51 p.m. local German time, the Volkswagen Group sent out a press release. Well over 90 percent of shareholders at the annual general meeting in Berlin voted to formally approve the actions of the management and supervisory boards.

Three minutes later, the first tickers started running with breaking news: criminal charges were being filed against former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn in the US in connection with his involvement in the diesel emissions scandal.

Though the indictment was filed in March, it has only now come to light. Maybe Winterkorn had to first be taken to a safe place. Whatever the case, a well-rehearsed scenario has been repeated: Whenever Volkswagen seems to be moving on, the grim reality of the recent past comes back into the spotlight.

DW business editor Henrik Böhme (DW)

DW business editor Henrik Böhme

This is what happened on Thursday: freshly anointed Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess spent the better part of an hour outlining his vision for the future to shareholders.

His key message was that Volkswagen must become more "respectable." And then what happens? The judicial system — in this case the US Justice Department — brought Dieselgate roaring back into the headlines.

The long-term companion

At least for now, new VW boss Diess seems to be the right man to lead the carmaker into a calmer future. He only joined the company in the summer of 2015, and it is possible that he learned about the emissions trickery later than most.

But the ongoing investigations — whether in the US or Germany — are especially interested in two major questions: What did Martin Winterkorn know and when? Up to this point he has always said that he was never privy to any details.

Yet I can only repeat the same question that I ask every time this comes up. Winterkorn is a heart-and-soul engineer who also studied physics and was interested in every millimeter gap on each car. How can someone like that have been completely uninterested in how the company reduced harmful emissions by such a magnitude?

Questions upon questions. No answers

Since Volkswagen's regular gasoline engine cars were not selling well in the American market, it wanted to unload diesels at any price. These vehicles were advertised as "superior, clean technology." But as more restrictive pollution laws came into effect in the US, VW engineers became more inventive and began to cheat.

At some point the deception blew up. From the beginning, investigators in the US have focused mainly on how the company deceived consumers — simple fraud. Prosecutors went after high-ranking managers, though only one, Oliver Schmidt, made the mistake of vacationing in Florida and was arrested.

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But Winterkorn will not fall into such a trap. He is probably safe at his home somewhere between Braunschweig and Wolfsburg, with its heated Koi pond, so that his expensive fish don't get cold fins. All this plus his lavish pension — €3,100 ($3,700) — per day! It's highly unlikely that the Americans will send in the Navy SEALS to get him.

Why not just be honest?

Nevertheless, Winterkorn won't enjoy the quiet retirement he probably expected. It's true that he made Volkswagen what it is today — the biggest carmaker in the world — but through questionable leadership methods more reminiscent of a Communist party executive committee than modern management.

Mistakes were made. He made mistakes. But he is simply unable and unwilling to admit to them. He could come clean. But since he is also being investigated in Germany (even if the case "only" revolves about informing the shareholders of problems too late), he prefers to spend time with his fish.

American prosecutors have now set the stage. They are convinced that Martin Winterkorn was an accessory to a crime. Hopefully, state prosecutors in Braunschweig will look more closely at their own Winterkorn file.

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