Charges against VW ex­ecs put blame in right place

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - COMMENTARY - — Los Angeles Times

Volk­swa­gen’s in­de­fen­si­ble med­dling with ve­hi­cle emis­sions to cir­cum­vent U.S. en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards cost the in­ter­na­tional car maker bil­lions of dol­lars in set­tle­ments, fines and lost sales. Now, the Jus­tice Depart­ment has taken a new, wel­come step and in­dicted six high-level VW em­ploy­ees on con­spir­acy and fraud charges. Some are ac­cused of over­see­ing the de­vel­op­ment of diesel en­gines equipped with “de­feat de­vices” — soft­ware that could tell the car to in­crease emis­sions con­trols when it de­tected the car was be­ing tested. Oth­ers al­legedly cov­ered up the scheme by de­stroy­ing emails and tak­ing other steps to de­ter reg­u­la­tors from un­cov­er­ing the truth.

We hope this isn’t just a one-off pros­e­cu­tion. For too long the Jus­tice Depart­ment has fo­cused on fin­ing cor­po­ra­tions caught in il­le­gal acts, of­ten agree­ing to set­tle­ments in which the cor­po­ra­tion ad­mits no guilt. As a re­sult, the con­se­quences for the com­pany are lim­ited to fines ul­ti­mately paid by in­sur­ers, ab­sorbed by share­hold­ers or passed along to cus­tomers. Sure, ex­ec­u­tives and lower-level em­ploy­ees deemed re­spon­si­ble of­ten lose their jobs, but rarely is an in­di­vid­ual held crim­i­nally li­able for the crim­i­nal acts.

Whether the VW em­ploy­ees are guilty will be for a jury to de­cide — if they ever get be­fore one. Five of the six are in Ger­many, which has a his­tory of not ex­tra­dit­ing its cit­i­zens. The sixth, Oliver Sch­midt, had the mis­for­tune of pop­ping up in the U.S. on travel and was ar­rested Sun­day at the Mi­ami air­port.

Mean­while, the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and Cal­i­for­nia’s Air Re­sources Board — the same reg­u­la­tors that ran down the VW vi­o­la­tions — ac­cused Fiat Chrysler on Thurs­day of in­stalling se­cret soft­ware in more than 100,000 ve­hi­cles to mask emis­sions of ni­trous ox­ide, a green­house gas. Fiat Chrysler de­nied it did any­thing wrong. The EPA said it is look­ing at other au­tomak­ers as well. And Takata, whose ex­plod­ing air bags were linked to 11 deaths, pleaded guilty to crim­i­nal wrong­do­ing, the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice in Detroit an­nounced Fri­day, and will pay fines of about $1 bil­lion.

In all of these cases, the Jus­tice Depart­ment must con­tinue to fer­ret out the in­di­vid­u­als re­spon­si­ble and not let cor­po­ra­tions essentially buy their way out of jus­tice.

It’s un­clear whether the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will take a sim­i­lar view, given Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s sup­port for reg­u­la­tory roll­backs. But he won the White House by tap­ping into pub­lic dis­sat­is­fac­tion with busi­ness as usual. He should put the in­ter­ests of the de­frauded ahead of those re­spon­si­ble for it.

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