VW faces U.S. criminal probe over diesel emissions violations, report says
WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation of Volkswagen AG’s admission to cheating on federal air pollution tests, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the inquiry.
Volkswagen said last week it’s cooperating with regulators probing gaps between emissions on the road and lab tests on some diesel models, affecting more than half a million cars. The U.S. officials described the inquiry on condition of anonymity because it’s a continuing investigation.
The German automaker plunged as much as 23 percent today to 125.40 euros in Frankfurt, wiping out about 15.6 billion euros ($17.6 billion) in market value. The stock closed at 132.2 euros, its lowest in more than three years.
Volkswagen’s admission is putting pressure on CEO Martin Winterkorn to repair the reputation of the world’s biggest carmaker. Winterkorn, whose contract renewal is scheduled for a supervisory board vote on Friday, now faces a serious challenge to his leadership, said Arndt Ellinghorst, a London-based analyst for Evercore ISI.
“This latest saga may help catalyze further management changes at VW,” Ellinghorst wrote in a note Monday.
Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee today announced plans to hold a hearing on the VW emissions scandal in the near future. The hearing will be held before the panel’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, though no date has been set.
“We will follow the facts. We are also concerned that auto consumers may have been deceived -- that what they were purchasing did not come as advertised,” U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and Tim Murphy, R-Pa., who chairs the investigations subcommittee, said in a joint statement.
"The American people deserve answers and assurances that this will not happen again. We intend to get those answers.”
Criminal inquiries can take months or years and lead to charges against individuals and companies. They can also result in fines and deferred-prosecution agreements, such as the one struck last week with General Motors -- with a $900 million criminal penalty -- to spur companies into improving their behavior and addressing problems revealed during the investigations.
Volkswagen admitted on Sept. 18 to fitting some of its U.S. diesel vehicles with software that turns on full pollution controls only when the car is undergoing official emissions testing, the Environmental Protection Agency said Friday. Affected are diesel versions of the VW Jetta, Golf, Beetle and Passat and the Audi A3.
During normal driving, the cars with the software -- known as a “defeat device” -- would pollute 10 times to 40 times the legal limits, the EPA estimated. The discrepancy emerged after the International Council on Clean Transportation commissioned real-world emissions tests of diesel vehicles including a Jetta and Passat, then compared them to lab results.
VW said it’s cooperating with regulators probing gaps between emissions on the road and lab tests on some diesel models. According to the EPA, the company insisted for a year that discrepancies were mere technical glitches.
Winterkorn, who has led VW since 2007, was forced to halt sales of the cars on Sunday and issue a public apology, saying he’s “deeply sorry” for breaking the public’s trust and that VW would do “everything necessary in order to reverse the damage this has caused.”
The violations, in theory, could result in as much as $18 billion in fines, based on the cost per violation and the number of cars. The final penalty will likely be far less.
The U.S. accusations are “grave” and must be clarified swiftly, said Stephan Weil, prime minister of the German state of Lower Saxony, which owns 20 percent of Volkswagen’s voting shares. “Possible consequences can be decided after that.”
The European Commission also said it’s taking VW’s cheating seriously and is in contact with U.S. regulators and the company about details of the case.
Ryan Beene of Automotive News contributed to this story.
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