Criminal charges should be brought to Volkswagen

Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn issues an apology for his cars' gross emissions violations.

Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn issues an apology for his cars’ gross emissions violations.

Another major corporation has been caught in an environmental scandal, and again the news media is as sympathetic as possible. Last week, the EPA confronted German automaker Volkswagen about allegations that certain of their diesel-engine vehicles violated Clean Air Act standards. The response from Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn was the kind of “Aw, shucks” apology we’ve become accustomed to from the powerful: “I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public.”

But Winterkorn did far more than violate trust. According to the LA Times, Volkswagen has sold nearly half a million affected cars in the U.S. since 2009 and 11 million worldwide. These cars, which were heavily marketed as burning “clean diesel,” were emitting up to 40 times the allowed amount of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere. Software in the car’s computer – apparently common enough in the industry that it has a nickname, a “defeat device” – tricks inspectors by switching over to a special mode at inspection time. That excess nitrogen oxide combines with oxygen in the atmosphere to form nitrogen dioxide and smog.

In small doses, NO2 is relatively benign. But the VW diesel vehicles didn’t emit small doses. In high doses, NO2 can be toxic to plants and attack the human respiratory system. According to Mother Jones, the vehicles likely emitted some 3,000 excess tons of the stuff into the air in Southern California alone.

Because the effect on human health of excess NO2 is accumulative, and there are other sources of NO emissions, it’s difficult to directly attribute specific health and environmental consequences to VW’s chicanery. But it’s impossible to deny their hefty contribution. Volkswagen perpetrated a willful attack on human health and it’s not unreasonable to attribute enormous suffering, even some number of deaths, to the excess air pollutants.

Writing at, UCLA professor Mark Kleiman notes, “Keep this case in mind when evaluating the claim oft heard from Koch-funded ‘criminal justice reform’ advocates that it’s wrong to ‘criminalize’ regulatory violations… When people conspire to commit a crime that harms the health of untold numbers of people, criminal charges are appropriate.”

Winterkorn unveils a new prototype for investors in Shanghai.

Winterkorn unveils a new prototype for investors in Shanghai.

Yet the media doesn’t seem to be taking the criminal charges angle too seriously. The Justice Department is launching an investigation, and of that Reuters writes, “Volkswagen AG will probably have to show there was some legitimate reason to install software that led to false vehicle emissions tests if it is to avoid U.S. criminal charges,” as though the coding that led to the false emissions reading was installed by accident.

Most of the focus is on VW’s likely monetary repercussions from various civil lawsuits, government fees and stocks dropping, including references to the incident as a “black eye” and “major setback” for the company. Others don’t just downplay the criminality, but call on consumers to capitalize on it. Matt Clinch of CNBC wrote an enthusiastic article titled “3 reasons why Volkswagen shares are a ‘buy’” in which he “highlights the good feeling around the German firm as it tackles an investigation that is spreading across the globe.”

NPR reports the company is “‘working at full speed’ to investigate the problematic software.” It’s very reassuring to hear the company that deliberately designed cars to belch toxic gas into the atmosphere and developed software to cover it up is on the case. Surely they’ll get to the bottom of it; although “getting to the bottom” in this case is less interesting than getting to the top.

Such a massive deceit must have involved officials at the very highest levels of the corporation. Winterkorn hasn’t resigned – resigning would look too much like an admission of guilt – but rumors persist that a replacement is lined up and his job is on the line. Whatever happens, if history is any indication he’ll be making millions at a new company in no time.

The Supreme Court may have declared corporations persons, but corporations don’t have consciences. If they did, this scandal would never have happened or would’ve been copped to long before someone else exposed it. In truth, Volkswagen couldn’t care less if some poor asthmatic chokes on fumes from illegally designed cars. And as long as the company is profitable, neither could executives and shareholders.

Since money is truly the only thing they care any iota about, it might be compelling to think of the up to $18 billion fine as hitting them where they live. But any money they pay in fines will come out of the corporate budget, low-wage workers’ salaries, employee pensions, and so on. It won’t come out of the executives’ personal bank accounts.

Fines only induce crooks to hide their malfeasance through the kinds of means on display in this very case. The only thing that can deter corporate criminals like Winterkorn is prison. It’s unconscionable that they can get away with only a fine and an apology while the damage they inflict carries prolonged consequences on our health and environment. If this country wanted to get serious about justice, it could start by releasing nonviolent drug offenders and making room for Volkswagen executives.

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