It remains to be seen how high the new special counsel Robert Mueller aims his probe of the Trump campaign, but there are reports that another prominent investigation is targeting those at the top. German prosecutors are said to be examining the role of Volkswagen chief executive Matthias Muller and his predecessor Martin Winterkorn in the emissions cheating scheme perpetrated by the automaker. They are also looking at the chairman of Porsche SE, which has a controlling interest in VW.
Mueller and Muller, by the way, have more of a connection than the similarity of their names. Last year, the former FBI director was chosen by a federal judge to serve as the “settlement master” to help resolve hundreds of lawsuits brought against VW in U.S. courts. Mueller has played a similar role regarding suits brought against Japanese airbag maker Takata.
Although Winterkorn was forced to resign after the emissions scandal erupted in 2015, he and Muller — who was VW’s head of product planning while the cheating was taking place — denied any wrongdoing, and the company sought to pin the blame on lower-level managers.
The initial U.S. Justice Department case against VW named no executives at all, though a company engineer later pleaded guilty to fraud charges and in January DOJ indicted six other VW middle managers.
There is no question that many individuals had to be involved in a scheme as widespread as the one at VW. Although it was corrupt, VW was also bureaucratic, so it is to be expected that lower-level managers either sought permission from their superiors for undertaking a risky scheme — or they were carrying out a plot that originated from above.
In fact, the New York Times reports that it has been shown internal company emails and memos suggesting that VW engineers implementing the scheme were operating with the knowledge and consent of top managers.
As the evidence mounts, the issue for German prosecutors may no longer be whether the likes of Muller and Winterkorn were involved but whether they, the prosecutors, are willing to bring charges against those at the apex of the corporate hierarchy.
In the United States, a reluctance to take that step has tainted the prosecution of business crime for more than a decade. At a time when discussion of whether anyone is above the law is the focus of discussion in the government realm, we should not forget that the principle applies in the corporate sector as well.