Will the Obama Administration Hold VW Accountable for Corporate Crime?

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.

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“I don’t suppose we’ll never know how many people died—asthmatics, for example—because 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.