Handelsblatt Exclusive

VW Memos Cast Harsh Light on Ex-CEO

merkel and matthias müller, martin winterkorn and matthias wissmann, head of the german auto association, sept 17, 2015 frankfurt auto show source reuters
Then VW CEO Martin Winterkorn, second from right, on September 17, 2015, days before the VW scandal broke and he resigned, denying knowledge of the scandal. A legal brief VW submitted in a German court says VW top managers did not order the emissions-rigging deception, but raises questions about whether Mr. Winterkorn and others acted fast enough to get to the bottom of the scandal. The photo was taken at the Frankfurt Auto Show. Standing to Mr. Winterkorn's left is Matthias Müller, the Porsche CEO who succeeded him as VW CEO a few days later.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If shareholders can prove in German court that VW’s top managers failed to quickly identify and address its own diesel emissions problems, they may obtain millions of euros in damages from the automaker.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • A confidential document investigating the Dieselgate scandal named Mr. Winterkorn 16 times, and said he was first apprised of the engine problems in May 2014.
    • Mr. Winterkorn resigned 16 months later after the automaker disclosed the scandal to the public, saying he had just learned about the software manipulation at the heart of the scandal.
    • Some experts say the ultimate costs to VW of the scandal could reach €30 billion.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

The Volkswagen legal document is 115 pages long.

Its purpose is to defend Europe’s largest automaker in German court against lawsuits brought by several shareholders in Germany. In its conclusion, lawyers at Göhmann law firm in Braunschweig said VW’s top managers did not violate any laws, according to the document, which Handelsblatt has seen.

But between the lines, the legal defense reads like an accusation: It lists a series of occasions between spring of 2014 and September 2015 when then-Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn was informed by subordinates of the “diesel topic” — a reference to the scandal that now threatens the firm.

Mr. Winterkorn is mentioned by name 16 times in the document. Last week, VW released a four-page summary to the public. Days after the scandal broke last September, Mr. Winterkorn resigned, denying knowledge of the software manipulation that falsified emissions tests on up to 11 million vehicles.

But regardless of questions of culpability — which prosecutors in Braunschweig and the United States are pursuing — a big question has been raised by Volkswagen’s own depiction of the events leading up to the scandal.

Should Mr. Winterkorn have acted sooner?

The shareholders suing Volkswagen in Germany argue that the automaker informed the public too late about the scandal, and is therefore legally responsible for their investment losses. VW shares plunged by up to 40 percent in the wake of the scandal.

The legal defense presented by Volkswagen in the Braunschweig civil case, devised to defend the automaker from compensatory damage claims, nevertheless casts a curious light on the actions of Mr. Winterkorn.

The legal document also names only once Herbert Diess, the head of VW-brand vehicles, but that is not surprising. The former BMW executive took over as VW-brand chief at Volkswagen last July.

The documents presented in court provided no evidence that would incriminate two top VW executives in the emissions-rigging: Matthias Müller, the Porsche CEO who succeeded Mr. Winterkorn last September as VW chief executive, and Hans Dieter Pötsch, VW’s chief financial officer who became chairman of the automaker’s non-executive supervisory board last October.

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