By on January 19, 2017

Martin Winterkorn, Image: Volkswagen AG [CC BY 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

As far as anyone knows, former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn spent the last 16 months on a desert island.

After resigning his post in the turbulent days after the diesel emissions scandal went public, Winterkorn stayed out of the spotlight, shying from any public appearances. That is, until now. As indictments land in executives’ laps and top brass grow wary of leaving the country, Winterkorn showed his face to a parliamentary committee in Berlin.

Apologetic but unbowed, Winterkorn broke his silence but maintained his innocence. The ex-CEO claimed he wasn’t directly involved in the creation and cover-up of the company’s emissions-cheating defeat devices, Bloomberg reports.

“It’s incomprehensible why I wasn’t informed early and clearly,” Winterkorn said. “I would have prevented any type of deception or misleading of authorities.”

German prosecutors opened an investigation into his actions last June, and speculation regarding his level of knowledge of the devices continues to fly. The affidavit filed after this month’s indictments points to broad knowledge of the devices among company executives. Besides the FBI’s court filing, there’s plenty of other food for thought.

Winterkorn is alleged to have received a memo detailing early investigations into the diesel affair over a year before the scandal went public. The former CEO claims he didn’t remember reading it. Months before the Environmental Protection Agency leveled its accusations, Winterkorn apparently sat in on a meeting where the issue was discussed. He also reportedly signed a pre-scandal document authorizing the release of only some of the information requested of the company by U.S. regulators.

According to Bloomberg, Winterkorn’s defense — in which he claimed to know nothing about software and that knowledge of the devices never reached his desk — is at odds with his reputation as a micro-manager. Winterkorn took on the role of CEO in 2007. The FBI claims that the conspiracy to dupe American regulators began in 2006. Many would argue that if he didn’t know something was amiss in his nearly decade-long tenure, he should have.

Winterkorn apparently departed from the committee hearing after making a final apology.

“What happened makes people furious — me too,” he said. “I’m deeply upset that we disappointed millions of our customers.”

[Image: Volkswagen AG/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)]

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28 Comments on “Ex-Volkswagen CEO Reappears, Claims He Didn’t Know Nuthin’...”

  • avatar

    I don’t think “not remembering” is a legitimate claim to innocent.

    • 0 avatar

      It is well established in American courts that “I don’t recall” is hard to refute without a smoking gun, fingerprints, and a video in HD. German courts might be different.

  • avatar

    The Bart Simpson Defense: “Nobody saw me, you can’t prove it.”

  • avatar

    Winterkorn’s defense “Ich habe es nicht gewusst” is BS of course. It was his business to know. This applies to all VW investments that were being made during his reign. Or he did a poor job as acting CEO. Either way, shareholders may have a case against him, in clawing back all of his bonuses that he received over the years that the software was being developed and used. If he knew or didn’t know, is of no relevance then.

  • avatar

    He does bear a passing resemblance to Sgt. Schultz…

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, but he’s not as entertaining. And his back story isn’t as interesting (and ironic) as John Banner’s being a Jew who fled Hitler’s Germany.

      • 0 avatar

        The guy who played Major Strasser in “Casablanca” was also a German who was classified as a Jew by the Nazis, and fled.

        I can think of no greater anti-Nazi screw job than Mel Brooks – a Jew – doing “Springtime for Hitler,” and winning an Oscar for it. If there was anything Der Fuhrer couldn’t handle, it was people laughing at him. It’s like an eternal “Trololo”. And then it got revived on Broadway. Eat it, Adolf.

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          Nearly the entire cast of Casablanca were European. Bogart and Dooley Wilson being the major exceptions but they played Americans. Many had to leave to escape the Nazis. Watch the scene where they play La Marseillaise. Those are all real tears that you see.

        • 0 avatar

          The movie was “The Producers”. The play Springtime For Hitler was the guaranteed bomb that accidentally succeeded as a parody in the movie.

          • 0 avatar

            Right, Lorenzo, but I was referring to the song “Springtime for Hitler,” which Brooks indeed wrote the lyrics for.

            Jews trolling Nazis in popular entertainment is endlessly fun. That’s one example…and I’m sure Steven Spielberg had a dandy time blowing up Nazis’ heads in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” As a Jew, I give this all two thumbs, way up.

    • 0 avatar

      “He does bear a passing resemblance to Sgt. Schultz…”

      He has that certain quality, Backpfeifengesicht, so typical of many Germans.

      No strudel for you, Herr Winterkorn!

  • avatar

    At a test kitchen in Hanover, Germany, Madrigal Electromotive GmbH executive Peter Schuler (who did business with Gus Fring & Los Pollos Hermanos) glumly tastes a variety of dipping sauces. His secretary interrupts to inform him the police have arrived (to question him about his longstanding relationship with Gus Fring).

    On his way to face his fate, Schuler grabs an automatic defibrillator and locks himself in the bathroom. As the authorities pound on the door, Schuler places one of the AED contacts in his mouth and electrocutes himself.

    • 0 avatar


    • 0 avatar

      Great scene, ignoring of course that AEDs don’t work that way, but still – great scene :)

      I wonder if he’s angling for his old job back? “This never would have happened had I known! Now that I know, I’m the one you can trust to root out all the corruption and restore order to the galaxy..”

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah , and it was the plain old Ketchup that he was most partial to ?

      • 0 avatar

        The dozen or so edible food-like taste scientists in the white lab coats with clipboards in hand were baffled, as they were sure honey-mesquite BBQ and the 8 or 9 other artificially flavored dipping sauces were really going to impress Herr. Schuler!

    • 0 avatar

      I thought of that Madrigal guy when I read an article about this yesterday. I’m amazed that Winterkorn hasn’t offed himself by now. If he didn’t know every detail about the defeat devices, he was a terrible CEO.

  • avatar

    If we assume what he is saying is true, could an argument be made that those in the executive suite have become too disconnected from the actual operations of the companies they run?

  • avatar

    If I were him, I’d make the same claim.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Consider the following scenario, a mix of fact and conjecture:

    Winterkorn (and Piëch):
    – detail obsessed micromanagers;
    – Piëch being a engine engineering engineer by training, having picked out the FI system for these engines, having apparently decided to cancel the 1,000€/car (when VW’s only cleared 800€/car profit) AD Blue licensing agreement with Daimler, would seem to be up to his elbows in engine architecture decisions;
    – Wiko as Piëch’s mini-me (Schabern! Schabbern would have wanted to be in on every detail;
    – maybe not as “open door” as they claim (it’s tough to enter a c-suite in most companies, and mail/email go through many assistant filters – crisis issues tend to penetrate such filters though);
    – but having countless unofficial (as well as official) trusted source direct access channels feeding them info outside of the normal bureaucracy;
    – to help sort/manage such info, they had a professional fireman (think Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction but w/o the mustache, tux or NSX) to expose, manage and clean up crises. Nobody smart ignores the fireman;
    – the fireman doesn’t waste time cleaning up things that are immaterial or handable by the line organization. He handles expensive, embarrassing, issues that risk the company or managements neck’s;
    – if Wiko gets a call, letter, email from the fireman, it will captivate his attention, a good administrative assistant will put fireman communiques on the top of weekend reading as missing these risks bad things;
    – if Wiko learns of expensive (or stop-ship level) problems it will focus his mind and elicit questions of how much?, what?, who?, why? A recall of 500k cars, is bound to elicit these questions from all not in a coma, when it turns out to be emissions with fines, the red light is blinking and any later claim of not having details (what underling comes w/o details to a detail maniac?) Seems extremely implausible;
    – when patron/mentor Piëch hears from Wiko, this detail maniac will ask the same questions and the ejection light starts flashing (because even if in on the deal from the beginning, one doesn’t want to be hung based on participation in obstruction at the end);
    – when Piëch and wife abruptly quit board of company their family mostly control (with the quote “I feel a growing distance to Wiko), it is less likely coincidence than proactive exit to support plausible deniability while rest of organization mobilizes under the don’t get caught (at least until the 2016 cars are certified for sale).
    – when Wiko and the VW organization fail to find details or memories pointing upwards, it could be because the players in charge are still handpicked management from the old regime, some of which are on retainer to act as a firewall for the top two layers of control;
    – the former second layer of control, in his testimony yesterday, besides trying to save his own neck, appears to be playing the part of firewall on retainer.

    • 0 avatar

      This just over the wires: VE has decided not to release the long promised, under guise of transparency, Jones Day investigation report. They are afraid it will help prosecutors and plaintiffs.

      • 0 avatar

        Just found an article on Handlesblatt about that. Holy crap. That’s probably not a good sign.

        • 0 avatar

          Under the Yates Memo rules, VW has to turn over all details regarding who knew what when. If the don’t and the DOJ gets wise, VW will go another round in the ring with the US Atty and lose more billions.

          Assuming they played roles in the initiation, conduct or coverup, how much are Wiko and Piëch worth? As the DOJ squeezes from the bottom up and folks sing, how long will folks fired by VW, or even still on the payroll, protect the pinnacle?

  • avatar

    Aw, maybe he really didn’t know. Everyone knows Ferdinand Piech was running everything. Why hasn’t HE been questioned? Answer: he knows where the bodies are buried – he probably buried most of ’em. It wasn’t just the engineers who were afraid of him.

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