Dieselgate Hearing

The Last Witness Takes the Stand

German lawmakers quizzed Angela Merkel about what she knew of VW’s Dieselgate scandal. Source: Reuters

Lawmakers grilled Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday during the Bundestag’s parliamentary committee investigating Dieselgate.

Taking her seat as the inquiry’s final witness, Ms. Merkel said she only learned of Volkswagen’s emissions rigging scandal from the media when the news broke on September 19, 2015.

She said she was briefed on the revelations by Alexander Dobrindt, the transport minister, and that she helped him to set up an investigative committee as soon as possible.

While the scandal was made public in fall, the company has continued to insist that the cheat software to artificially lower emissions during testing was the work of a small number of employees. Amid mounting fines, VW faces investigations as to who instigated the plan and to what extent senior executives were involved.

Lawmakers on Wednesday also wanted to learn more about a conversation between Ms. Merkel and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010. Mary Nichols, the boss of the California Air Resources Board, was present at that meeting. Testifying before the investigative committee last Monday, she said Ms. Merkel had criticized the strict regulations governing diesel vehicles in California.

During her hearing, Ms. Merkel said she had no recollection of making such critical remarks but that if Ms. Nichols said so, she might have done. She said that any statement would not have been meant as an attack on California’s environmental efforts but that she would have wanted to point out that an entire category of cars would be excluded from efforts to reduce CO2 emissions under stricter diesel rules.

In 2015, Volkswagen admitted to manipulating 11 million diesel cars worldwide, including 585,000 in the U.S. and 8.5 million in Europe. The manipulated vehicles, which include those made by VW-owned Audi, Porsche and Skoda, were fitted with illegal software which artificially decreased nitrogen oxide emissions when it detected that the auto was being tested, and later returned emissions to higher levels to boost performance.

The Bundestag set up the investigative committee in July 2016 to determine what the government knew about the emissions cheating, and when VW executives became aware of the fraud. The committee heard witnesses from across the government and Volkswagen, including the company’s former CEO Martin Winterkorn.

So far VW has fired about two dozen mid-level managers the automaker said were responsible for installing the software concerned.

The company’s senior managers have all denied prior knowledge of the fraud, which has cost the German automaker billions of euros in fines and settlements in the United States and around the world.

Ms. Merkel’s appearance marks the last public questioning of the committee, which has so far heard statements by 68 witnesses and experts.

Daniel Tost is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: tost@handelsblatt.com

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