June 19, 2018
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Volkswagen falls short on accountability for hurting American consumers

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Mike Michaud
Updated:

It’s time we hold major corporations fully accountable for the damage they do to consumers, the economy, the environment and domestic manufacturing.

Throughout my time in Congress, I fought for fair trade deals that allowed American manufacturing to compete on a level playing field. I stood up for clean air and clean water. And I fought to make sure Maine consumers got a square deal.

Volkswagen thumbed its corporate nose at all of those things. The company cheated car buyers, polluted our air and put American carmakers at a significant marketing disadvantage.

Beginning in 2006, Volkswagen realized that new diesel cars it planned to sell in the United States couldn’t meet emissions standards. The cars promised high mileage and lower emissions. Promises we now know they couldn’t live up to.

When Volkswagen realized its new cars couldn’t meet expectations, the company made a terrible decision. Instead of reducing the amount of nitrous oxide the cars would emit, the company decided to commit fraud. From 2009 until the fall of 2015, Volkswagen sold about 590,000 cars in the U.S. specifically designed to cheat tests on emissions.

They didn’t stop until they got caught. And then, it appears, they didn’t really stop.

For that seven-year period, Volkswagen left American car companies fighting to compete with a fairytale and American consumers with cars pumping out as much as 40 times the legal amount of pollution.

Caught red handed, the company agreed to settle claims against it. Maine’s share of the civil and criminal settlement is about $21 million. Overall, the total cost to Volkswagen in fines and restitution has reached nearly $30 billion.

But it doesn’t go far enough to undo the damage caused by such reckless and criminal actions.

A new documentary, released on Netflix Jan. 26, by Alex Gibney uncovers new information about Volkswagen’s actions.

Gibney includes allegations by a Volkswagen engineer that the carmaker continued efforts to cheat emissions testing, instead of actually fixing the underlying problem and email that suggests the CEO of VW North America was aware of the cheating and mislead Congress.

Despite all the negative attention, the criminal penalties, the testimony before Congress, Volkswagen has apparently been caught doing the same thing again.

In January, Reuters reported that Volkswagen has been forced to recall 127,000 more cars in Germany because an audit detected illicit emission-control software.

Here’s how Motortrend described the situation: “More than two years after news broke that Volkswagen Group diesel engines used software that allowed them to dodge emissions regulations, you would think the scandal would be over and that the German automaker would be able to move on. According to the latest report, however, that’s not quite the case.”

That doesn’t sound like a company that has held themselves accountable and tried to put things right. Instead, it sounds like more of the same bad corporate behavior that launched the scandal in the first place.

And there are many more examples of a corporate culture that seems to treat rules as though they exist to be cheated and customers with a similar amount of contempt. European investigators are looking into whether VW colluded with other German automakers to hide emissions, and one of the company’s subsidiaries is mired in a bribery scandal in Egypt.

From all evidence available, it appears that a dangerous corporate culture has been allowed to take root at Volkswagen — a culture that has not yet changed even after all that has happened.

With all that’s going on, we have a tendency as a country to quickly move from one problem to the next once we think something has been fixed. This problem hasn’t been fixed.

American consumers and their representatives must remain diligent and engaged. And Volkswagen’s top executives should come to the U.S. and tell Congress and the American people how they plan to move forward in an ethical and transparent way.

Mike Michaud represented Maine’s 2nd Congressional District from 2003 to 2014 and was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014.

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