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Former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned following revelations that the automaker had designed its vehicles to cheat emissions tests.

So How Many VW Executives Are Going to Jail Exactly?

Volkswagen’s emissions cheating was a crime, so why aren't the Feds treating it that way?

Robert Weissman

Note: Volkswagen has reportedly agreed to pay roughly $15 billion in compensation to car owners and civil penalties to settle its U.S. emissions scandal case. The terms of the settlement were announced Tuesday. In 2015, the automaker admitted that 11 million of its vehicles worldwide had software designed to cheat on emissions tests for unlawful air pollution.

Will any executives go to jail? That is the question that must be answered before assessing whether Volkswagen has been held accountable for its unconscionable acts – and whether others will be deterred from similar wrongdoing in the future.

The settlement likely to be announced today is expected to provide compensation to consumers who were deceived by Volkswagen, believing they were buying an environmentally friendly car that in fact was designed not to reduce emissions but to cheat emissions tests. This settlement is necessary. It will matter how and to what extent consumers are compensated.

The settlement also is expected to include funding and promises to offset the environmental damage perpetrated by Volkswagen’s fraud. That too is necessary. And it will matter how and to what extent Volkswagen is committed to offset the pollution its cars have spewed into the air due to fraud.

But money – no matter how much – and environmental programs – no matter how helpful – are not enough. Volkswagen and its executives must be held to account for criminal wrongdoing. Whether and how to proceed with criminal prosecution are decisions that rest with the U.S. Department of Justice, and they are not expected to be resolved as part of today’s settlement.


Over a period of many years, Volkswagen engaged in premeditated, intentional acts designed to circumvent the law and deceive consumers, with callous disregard for the fact that the vehicles it sold were poisoning people and the planet in the process.

Researchers have estimated that 60 people died as a result of Volkswagen’s excess emissions, which may have been as much as 40 times the permissible levels. We may not know the names of those people, but that doesn’t make the deaths any less real.

Justice demands a sharp break from the kid glove, coddling treatment that the Justice Department has shown to corporate criminals over the past decade. The department has touted a newfound readiness to prosecute executives; this case, where the company knowingly and intentionally engineered its cars to cheat on government-administered pollution tests, is a clear test. Will it follow its new policy and criminally prosecute responsible executives?

What justice requires is plain enough: Volkswagen must be made to plead guilty for its crimes with no deferred prosecution agreement, regardless of whatever cooperation it now provides. And responsible executives and managers inside Volkswagen must be prosecuted and sent to jail.

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

Robert Weissman

Robert Weissman is the president of Public Citizen. Weissman was formerly director of Essential Action, editor of Multinational Monitor, a magazine that tracks corporate actions worldwide, and a public interest attorney at the Center for Study of Responsive Law. He was a leader in organizing the 2000 IMF and World Bank protests in D.C. and helped make HIV drugs available to the developing world.

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