WASHINGTON -- Volkswagen Group of America obstructed justice by deleting data in the days after being notified of EPA and Department of Justice probes tied to the company’s diesel emissions violations, according to claims in a lawsuit by a former U.S. employee.
The former employee, Daniel Donovan, who worked in VW’s office of general counsel, alleges that he was fired on Dec. 6 after refusing to participate in what he believed was the destruction of evidence possibly related to the U.S. government’s investigation of VW’s emissions violations, according to the complaint.
Donovan was responsible for electronic discovery and information management in VW’s product liaison office, which is part of VW’s office of general counsel.
In the suit, he claims that VW deleted internal data until Sept. 21, three days after the company received a Sept. 18 notice that some 482,000 vehicles with 2.0-liter diesel engines violated U.S. emissions regulations.
“Accidental” deletion of data continued after Sept. 21, including an Oct. 5 incident involving data on VW “home drives,” according to the suit. VW’s IT department was also not preserving backup disks, the suit says.
Donovan’s suit, filed March 7 in Oakland County, Mich., circuit court, does not specify the type of data being deleted.
Donovan believed the deletion of internal VW data violates a “hold” placed by the Department of Justice on company documents that could be relevant to its investigation, according to the suit.
The DOJ’s investigation could result in criminal charges, and the department recently served VW with a subpoena under a civil law designed to crack down on bank fraud.
In a statement, VW pushed back against Donovan’s suit.
“The circumstances of Mr. Donovan’s departure were unrelated to the diesel emissions issue,” VW said. “We believe his claim of wrongful termination is without merit.”
Donovan’s attorney declined to comment. The DOJ and EPA also declined to comment.
Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, says that VW could run afoul of obstruction of justice laws if it intentionally deleted data.
Even if data was deleted by a rogue employee, VW would still be responsible. A grand jury may also seek answers from Donovan himself, Henning said.
“The information in the complaint, if true, would put VW in even more hot water with the government because it would show a distinct lack of cooperation,” Henning said. “At a minimum, the Justice Department is going to want to talk to everyone involved, and get information about any deletions. There is usually backup data available, so it’s unlikely anything was irretrievably lost, but that does not placate prosecutors, who don’t care for a ‘no harm, no foul’ attitude.”