Ex-VW CEO Winterkorn Deflects Blame for Emissions Cheating

  • Winterkorn says he would’ve halted deception if he’d known
  • “It’s incomprehensible why I wasn’t informed,” ex-CEO says

VW Pleads Guilty as U.S. Charges Five More in Scandal

Martin Winterkorn, the former chief executive officer of Volkswagen AG, sought to deflect blame for the biggest scandal in the carmaker’s history, saying he would have put a stop to the emissions cheating if he’d known.

In his first public appearance since being forced to resign 16 months ago, Winterkorn apologized for breaching the trust of millions of customers while defending his tenure and saying that he wasn’t directly involved in developing software to comply with emissions regulations.

Martin Winterkorn at the Bundestag on Jan. 19.

Photographer: Rolf Schulten/Bloomberg

“It’s incomprehensible why I wasn’t informed early and clearly,” Winterkorn, 69, said in testimony before a parliamentary committee in Berlin. “I would have prevented any type of deception or misleading of authorities.”

More than a year after the scandal over tainted diesel engines burst into the public, Winterkorn’s role in the cheating is still unclear, and the former CEO defended himself on Thursday by claiming he’s no software engineer and that the rogue acts didn’t rise to his level. Instead, he portrayed himself as an upright executive who was focused on quality and would have wanted to hear about emissions issues.

Winterkorn’s claim that he didn’t know about cheating technology installed in 11 million cars worldwide contrasts with his reputation as a detail-obsessed executive who was known for upbraiding VW employees for even minor design flaws.

“It remains difficult to believe that such a dedicated engineer like Winterkorn wasn’t aware what was going on,” said Stefan Bratzel, an auto industry researcher at the University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. “And if he wasn’t, he neglected his duties as supervisor.”

New Apology

An engineer who rose through the ranks at Volkswagen and brought it within striking distance of displacing Toyota Motor Corp. as the world’s biggest carmaker, Winterkorn has seen his legacy tarnished by a scandal that’s cost the company 20.5 billion euros ($21.9 billion) so far and led to the indictment in the U.S. of six senior executives.

His responses on Thursday show a man trying to restore his image after falling from grace at the peak of what had until then been a successful career. When the scandal broke in September 2015, Winterkorn’s contract was just about to be renewed and he’d emerged victorious from a power struggle. His mentor and longtime VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech had sought the CEO’s ouster but instead himself was forced to resign, giving Winterkorn all but uncontested authority at the Wolfsburg, Germany-based giant.

While Volkswagen has been forced to admit that the scheme wasn’t restricted to a few engineers as it initially claimed, it’s still unclear how much Winterkorn knew. At Thursday’s hearing he refused to answer some questions about when he was informed about the issue, citing a right to not incriminate himself amid a German criminal probe into allegations of market manipulation. Winterkorn reiterated his defense that the company initially thought the emissions issue was isolated to the U.S. and could be contained.

There are indications that Winterkorn may have missed warning signs before the crisis erupted in public. VW said last year that Winterkorn received two memos informing him of discrepancies in U.S. diesel emissions in 2014 and that he participated in a meeting in July 2015 that touched on the matter.

German members of parliament are questioning Winterkorn as part of an inquiry into what the government knew about emissions manipulation by carmakers and whether regulators took actions to prevent the cheating. Winterkorn said he told Chancellor Angela Merkel about the issue in September 2015, after U.S. authorities published their findings.

The former CEO hasn’t appeared in public since Volkswagen released an awkward filmed apology from him on Sept. 22, 2015, days after the scandal broke. In the video, a visibly shaken Winterkorn looked anxiously into the camera and read a statement saying that he’s “endlessly sorry.” He resigned a day later.

Winterkorn apologized again on Thursday, acknowledging that the scandal has damaged Volkswagen’s reputation. Stepping down from the company was the “most difficult” moment of his life, he said. Still, he denied involvement, saying he didn’t fully understand the software used to falsify emissions results.

“What happened makes people furious -- me too,” Winterkorn said. “I’m deeply upset that we disappointed millions of our customers.”

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