Obama DOJ Charges VW Execs, But Will Trump Kill Corporate Accountability Gains?

Volkswagen on Wednesday agreed to plead guilty to three criminal felony counts and agreed to pay a record $4.3 billion in fines and fees related to its emissions cheating scandal in the U.S., while another six top executives were charged over their alleged roles in the conspiracy to rig air pollution tests.

The settlement includes $2.8 billion in criminal penalties and $1.5 billion in civil claims, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The car company also agreed to work with an independent corporate compliance monitor for at least three years.

“Volkswagen’s attempts to dodge emissions standards and import falsely certified vehicles into the country represent an egregious violation of our nation’s environmental, consumer protection, and financial laws,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The executives, who were indicted by a federal grand jury in Michigan, are being charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., conspiracy to defraud VW’s American customers, violations of the Clean Air Act, and wire fraud, all stemming from what prosecutors say was a nearly 10-year operation.

The charges come after the DOJ drew criticism for its seemingly lenient treatment of the executives, as federal prosecutors declined to press charges against individual VW employees for more than a year after the company admitted to wrongdoing. It is unclear if the executives, all German, will be extradited or face prison time. (Five of the six men are in Germany, but one was arrested in Florida earlier this week.)


Still, the historic outcome of the case has left many wondering about the prosecution of corporate crime and environmental violations under President-elect Donald Trump, who has stacked his cabinet with billionaires and climate deniers.

“Volkswagen engaged in a concerted conspiracy to cheat and lie to American consumers and deceive American regulators on a scale with few precedents,” said Robert Weissman, president of the government watchdog group Public Citizen, in a statement Wednesday. “Today, the Justice Department has meted out justice, importantly insisting both that the company plead guilty to felony charges and that executives be held criminally accountable.”

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“We’ve seen far too little of this in recent years. Will the Trump Justice Department follow today’s positive example going forward?” Weissman said.

Volkswagen in 2015 admitted that it had installed software devices in its diesel vehicles that were programmed to cheat on pollution emissions tests mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and that its employees had lied to investigators.

Other car companies are also implicated in the emissions scandal, including Porsche, Mitsubishi, and Audi. Millions of cars were sold worldwide from 2009 to 2016 that were equipped with rigged devices.

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