HAMBURG -- Volkswagen's chief employee representative, Klaus Volkert, resigned as head of the group's works council on Thursday, removing a long-time pillar of the carmaker's traditionally close ties to its labor force.
German media reports linked his unexpected departure to a scandal brewing over allegations of bribery at VW's Czech unit, Skoda, but Volkert said in a statement that he had not committed any crimes.
He acknowledged, however, that he had moved forward his planned resignation, given what promised to be public discussion of "apparent irregularities". He gave no further details on the matter.
Europe's biggest carmaker denied a media report that personnel chief Peter Hartz was expected to resign over the bribery investigation, which VW vowed to pursue vigorously.
"Dr. Hartz is and will remain head of human resources at Volkswagen AG," a spokesman said.
Participants at a staff meeting said Volkert, 62, had cited age as his reason for resigning after 15 years at the head of the works council, one of the most potent in German industry.
"A few people have already asked why the old coot Volkert is still in office," they quoted him as saying. "I believe now is the time to step down."
Volkert, who helped to broker several labor deals at VW and whose influence on corporate strategy earned him the nickname "the secret CEO", will be replaced by his designated successor, Bernd Osterloh.
IG Metall metalworkers union chief Juergen Peters, who serves as deputy supervisory board chairman at Volkswagen, said the plan was for Volkert, a member of IG Metall who also sits on the VW board, to remain on the board and to stay a member of the works council.
Der Spiegel wrote in its online edition that the company was investigating possible ties between Volkert and Skoda's former personnel chief, Helmuth Schuster, who was suspected by the company of demanding kickbacks from suppliers. The magazine did not cite any sources for its information.
Brunswick state prosecutor Klaus Ziehe said on Thursday that his office had received complaints from VW accusing two employees of fraud and betrayal of confidence. One of them was Schuster.
Skoda declined to comment, saying only that Schuster had resigned from his post. Schuster could not be reached for comment.
In a statement, Volkswagen said it was cooperating closely with the Brunswick prosecutors and would thoroughly investigate all evidence of staff activities that may have attempted to harm the company financially.
It declined to comment, however, on the details of the case or the amount of financial damage that may have ensued.
"All existing leads will be pursued to get to the bottom of this," VW Chief Executive Bernd Pischetsrieder said.
If the state prosecutor launches an investigation, it would be the second criminal case involving a German carmaker this year, following a probe into suspected bribery that affected 12 people at rival DaimlerChrysler's premium Mercedes Car Group.