Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

The EPA says VW deliberately evaded federal emissions requirements in nearly a half-million diesel cars in the U.S. since 2009 by manufacturing and installing "defeat devices" in order to "bypass, defeat, or render inoperative elements of the vehicles' emission control system that exist to comply with [Clean Air Act] emission standards." (Photo: yuankuei/flickr/cc)

Will the Obama Administration Hold VW Accountable for Corporate Crime?

"This is a huge test of how serious the administration’s commitment is to prosecuting white collar crime."

Deirdre Fulton

The allegations being leveled against auto manufacturer Volkswagen (VW)—that it cheated to make nearly half a million diesel cars appear cleaner-burning than they are—offer a chance for the Obama administration to make good on its recent pledge to step up its fight against corporate crime, observers said this weekend. 

As Daniel Marans wrote for the Huffington Post: "The case provides an opportunity for the Department of Justice to deliver on a promise it made in a Sept. 9 memo to refocus its prosecution of white-collar crime on individual employees, rather than the institutions that employ them, and to pressure companies to cooperate in those efforts."

After all, Marans and others reported, the Environmental Protection Agency's accusation (pdf) is that VW deliberately evaded federal emissions requirements in nearly a half-million diesel cars in the U.S. since 2009 by manufacturing and installing "defeat devices" in order to "bypass, defeat, or render inoperative elements of the vehicles' emission control system that exist to comply with [Clean Air Act] emission standards."

On Sunday, a spokesman for the company told Reuters: "We have admitted to it to the regulator. It is true. We are actively cooperating with the regulator."

"I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public," VW CEO Martin Winterkorn added.

During normal driving situations, the controls are turned off, allowing the cars to spew as much as 40 times as much pollution as allowed under the Clean Air Act, the EPA said. Such pollutants are linked to a range of health problems, including asthma attacks, other respiratory diseases, and premature death.

"I don’t suppose we’ll never know how many people died—asthmatics, for examplebecause Volkswagen designed its 'clean diesel' vehicles—all 482,000 of them sold in the U.S. since 2009—to burn dirty except when they were being tested," wrote UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community blog on Friday.

"When people conspire to commit a crime that harms the health of untold numbers of people,  criminal charges are appropriate," he wrote. "And not only against the company, but against every official in it who can be shown to have known about the conspiracy."

According to news reports, the EPA and California's Air Resources Board said VW violated federal law and could face fines of up to $18 billion—$37,500 per vehicle—as well as criminal prosecution. Both agencies issued notices of non-compliance to VW Friday, a step necessary before ordering a recall.

"They appear to have designed a system with the intention to mislead consumers and the government," Tyler Slocum, director of the energy program at consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, told the New York Times. "If that’s proven true, it’s remarkable and outrageous. It would merit a heck of a lot more than just a recall and a fine. We would see criminal prosecution."

Just a few days ago, corporate watchdog groups slammed a $900 million settlement between the Justice Department and "homicidal fugitive from justice" General Motors as "unconscionable" and "shamefully weak."

Which leaves critics wondering: Will the VW revelations force the DOJ to bare its teeth? A recent analysis of DOJ statistics showed a "long-term collapse" of federal white collar crime prosecutions, which are down to their lowest level in 20 years. But the DOJ's September memo suggested that the agency would soon begin re-emphasizing prosecution of individual employees and put pressure on corporations to turn over evidence against their executives.

"This is a huge test of how serious the administration’s commitment is to prosecuting white collar crime," Slocum added to HuffPo on Saturday. "If the facts end up showing that Volkswagen executives deliberately designed and implemented a program to evade emissions testing, that is a brazen act and there has to be some accountability. It cannot just be yet another instance of Volkswagen opens up its checkbook and writes a check of shareholders' money to pay a fine. There has to be prosecution of executives involved in such a scheme."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Biden White House Dismisses WHO Call for Moratorium on Vaccine Boosters

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki touted U.S. vaccine donations to poor countries, but public health advocates have warned the Biden administration isn't doing nearly enough.

Jake Johnson ·


Democrats Demand Amazon and Facebook End Efforts to 'Sideline' FTC Chair Lina Khan

"Your efforts only add to the perception that you are attempting to bully your regulators, disarm the FTC, and avoid accountability rather than to strengthen ethics standards."

Jessica Corbett ·


Amnesty Follows House Dems' Letter by Imploring Biden to Close Gitmo 'Once and for All'

"This letter, signed by four House committee chairs, should send a clear message to President Biden: He has the political support to swiftly close the detention center at Guantánamo."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Truly Disturbing': Facebook Blasted for Blocking NYU Researchers Examining Ad Model and Misinformation

"It is disgraceful that Facebook is attempting to squash legitimate research that is informing the public about disinformation on their platform."

Jessica Corbett ·


After Decades-Long Grassroots Push, Key Senate Panel Votes to Repeal Iraq War Authorization

Rep. Barbara Lee, the only member of the U.S. House to vote against the AUMF in 2001, called the vote "a major victory in our fight to end forever wars."

Julia Conley ·