February 15, 2016
President Nixon once famously observed that it’s not the crime that gets you—it’s the cover up. Unfortunately, many have failed to heed Nixon’s lesson, or learn from his example, which is why people continue to get caught up in scandals that spiral out of control. To wit: the ongoing scandal at Volkswagen, which has devolved from a relatively harmless case of emissions rigging to a deliberate cover up that reaches the highest levels of Volkswagen leadership. Over the weekend, we learned that former Volkswagen CEO and Game of Thrones reference generator Martin Winterkorn may have known about the illegal software in VW diesel vehicles before the general public did. As reported by the German magazine Bild Am Sonntag (or see the Automotive News link for the English language version), an unidentified Volkswagen employee warned Winterkorn and other VW higher-ups that U.S. regulators would detect the defeat devices installed in the automaker’s diesel vehicles. Apparently, the employee communicated his concerns to Winterkorn as early as May 2014, which would give lie to his claims that he found out the scandal at Volkswagen at the same time everyone else did. The timing of the employee’s letter is particularly damning to Volkswagen leadership, as it was written over a year before VW finally admitted to its culpability in the emissions-test cheating scandal. While the identity of the (possibly whistleblowing?) employee is still unknown, he (or possibly she) was known as “Winterkorn’s fireman.” Therefore, any remote chance of plausible deniability on Winterkorn’s part is kaput—much like his reputation in the auto industry. Ironically, the May 2014 letter was uncovered by a U.S. law firm conducting an internal investigation into the company’s practices after the scandal at Volkswagen came to light. With this new information, “the authorities will investigate VW systems to establish whether Volkswagen has implemented test-recognition software,” Bild writes. For the uninitiated, or for those who need a refresher, here’s a brief timeline of events: May 2014: A West Virginia University study is published that reveals high levels of nitrogen oxide emissions in VW diesel vehicles. July 2015: The California Air Resources Board informs both Volkswagen and the Environmental Protection Agency that its tests detected emissions violations in VW diesel vehicles. Volkswagen claims to have conducted its own tests that contradict CARB’s findings. For the next few months, neither CARB nor the EPA will certify the VW diesel vehicles it found to violate clean air standards. September 2015: The EPA issues a Notice of Violation to Volkswagen that accuses the automaker of purposefully installing defeat devices in knowing violation of the Clean Air Act. After months of denials, Volkswagen finally admits that approximately 11 million of its diesel vehicles contain the defeat device and orders dealerships to stop sales of certain four-cylinder engine diesel models. October 2015: Volkswagen USA CEO Michael Horn testifies before a U.S. House committee, during which he apologizes for the installation of the defeat devices, which he blamed on “a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reason.” Horn also states that he first became aware of the emissions violations when the WVU was published in Spring 2014. November 2015: The EPA issues its second NOV against the Volkswagen Group for defeat devices discovered in about 10,000 VW, Audi and Porsche models. Volkswagen denies that the illegal software was installed in these vehicles but tells dealerships to stop selling the offending models. The automaker admits later that it “understated” the emissions levels of another 800,000 models. December 2015: An internal investigation concluded that the scandal at Volkswagen wasn’t a one-time incident, but rather the result of a “chain of errors” that resulted from a corporate culture that “tolerated breaches of rules” and suffered from employee miscount and faulty processes. January 2016: The EPA and the Department of Justice sue Volkswagen and its subsidiaries for failing to abide by EPA regulations and obstructing government attempts to address emissions cheating by the automaker. When Winterkorn “resigned” in late September, he said in a company-prepared statement he was leaving Volkswagen in order to protect Volkswagen, despite “not [being] aware of any wrong doing on [his] part.” However, the Bild report pokes holes into claims made by VW execs that they weren’t aware of the emissions-cheating defeat devices until after the WVU study. Given the too-close-to-be-coincidental events, you’d have to say that even the prosecutors in the Steven Avery case did a better job of establishing a credible timeline. Both Volkswagen and Winterkorn declined to comment on the Bild report for now. But something tells me that they’re going to have to continue to answer for their roles in the scandal at Volkswagen—likely in front of another governmental committee—sometime soon.