Volkswagen staff acted criminally, board member tells BBC

A Volkswagen board member has told the BBC that he believes some of the automaker's staff behaved criminally over installation of devices to cheat on emission testing.

U.S. wrestling with provisions of Clean Air Act that block criminal prosecution of automakers

Volkswagen has begun an internal probe and faces numerous external probes, with demands from the U.S. already for its records. (Canadian Press)

A Volkswagen board member has told the BBC that he believes some of the automaker's staff behaved criminally over installation of devices to cheat on emission testing.

It was a startling admission from Olaf Lies, who is also economy minister of the German province of Lower Saxony as Volkswagen faces a barrage of legal costs in the widening scandal.

"Those people who allowed this to happen, or who made the decision to install this software —- they acted criminally. They must take personal responsibility," Lies told the BBC.

The world's largest automaker said Tuesday it would recall 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide to remove software that engages emissions controls for nitrous oxide when the cars are being tested, but disengages them when the vehicles are in operation.

Lies said he learned about the problems at the latest VW board meeting, although there had been questions about VW's diesel vehicle emissions in the U.S. for more than a year.

"Huge damage has been done because millions of people have lost their faith in VW. We are surely going to have a lot of people suing for damages. We have to recall lots of cars and it has to happen really fast," he said.

Internal probe to report today

The VW board meets on Wednesday to review the findings of an internal probe into the scandal.

New CEO Matthias Mueller will brief the board and is under pressure to release details about how VW will handle an enormously costly and potentially complicated recall.

It also will be facing external investigations into its record.

Already Germany has announced a criminal investigation of the company that could lead to charges against executives, including former CEO Martin Winterkorn.

And U.S. lawmakers have sent letters to VW demanding all documents and communications related to compliance with the Clean Air Act and federal and California emissions standards.

Saying there are "many unanswered questions," a Congressional committee also sent a notice to the Environmental Assessment Agency asking for details of its dealings with VW.

No charges under U.S. emissions law

"We will continue to investigate this deceptive activity on the part of Volkswagen to ensure that these blatant violations do not happen again and consumers can trust the products that they buy," Congress members Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Diana DeGette of Colorado said in a statement.

But the Justice Department has pointed out that the Clean Air Act does not provide for criminal prosecution of automakers or their executives.

Car companies, with the aid of industry-friendly lawmakers, won a carve-out from criminal penalties in the 1970 Clean Air Act — with the reasoning that it would be too costly and difficult to provide for criminal prosecution under the act.

That loophole has been forgotten over the years, but is likely to get more attention in the wake of the VW scandal.

Instead, VW could face millions, if not billions, of dollars in civil penalties under the Clean Air Act, as well as class action lawsuits by car owners.

Prosecutors are considering alternative legal approaches, such as charging Volkswagen with lying to regulators.

About 482,000 Volkswagen diesel cars were sold in the U.S. and more than 100,000 in Canada.

Environment Canada has opened its own investigation into Volkswagen and is working with the EPA to retest VW cars.

With files from The Associated Press

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