Dieselgate: opening of the first trial of a car boss in Germany

MUNICH | Rupert Stadler, the former CEO of Volkswagen subsidiary Audi, becomes the first German auto boss to stand trial on fraud charges in his country on Wednesday, five years after the widespread scandal of rigged diesel engines was exposed.

Mr Stadler, 57, will face “fraud”, “issuing false certificates” and “false advertising”, according to charges at the Munich public prosecutor’s office.

He was compared alongside former Audi and Porsche manager Wolfgang Hatz, and two engineers from the four-ring brand.

They face up to 10 years in prison at the end of the complex trial scheduled to last until the end of December 2022, the first in Germany in the global case that erupted in 2015.

Auto giant Volkswagen has admitted to installing devices in 11 million vehicles worldwide that make them appear less polluting in laboratory tests than they actually are.

Media interest in Mr. Stadler’s appearance is immense. The trial will be held in one of the annexes to the Munich court in the Stadelheim district, but the number of places will be limited due to restrictions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

90 pages of accusation

The German investigation quickly focused on Audi, which was responsible for part of the research and development of engines within the Volkswagen group.

Joined the brand with the rings in 1990 and CEO from 2007, Mr. Stadler was already in June 2018 the first automotive executive placed in pre-trial detention in this case – because suspected by the justice of seeking to influence witnesses or other suspects – before being released.

The prosecution accuses him of having been aware of the manipulations towards the end of September 2015 “at the latest”, without having prevented the sale of hundreds of thousands of vehicles equipped with the cheating software.

Its three co-defendants are accused of having developed diesel engines equipped with this system, installed in vehicles since 2009.

The charges relate to a total of 434,420 vehicles of the Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche brands marketed mainly in Europe and the United States.

Mr Stadler has consistently rejected the charges, as has Mr Hatz, whose attorney said he would speak “in detail”.

The charge, which will be read in full at the first hearing, is over 90 pages long.

30 billion euros

Mr. Stadler may not be the only boss who has to explain himself to the judges for long.

Former Volkswagen Group boss Martin Winterkorn is awaiting a trial, the date of which has not yet been set, for gang fraud, aggravated tax evasion and stock price manipulation.

For its part, five years after the revelations in the United States, Volkswagen has drawn a line under much of the scandal for a bill exceeding 30 billion euros.

Most of it was paid in the United States. In Germany, the manufacturer, which is now betting everything on the electric car, has spent some 750 million euros to compensate 240,000 customers. And he is trying, after an unfavorable ruling from the country’s highest court, to come up with out-of-court settlements to settle many of the remaining 60,000 complaints.

The current CEO of the group, Herbert Diess, and the chairman of the supervisory board, Hans Dieter Pötsch, last year avoided a lawsuit, by means of a financial transaction of 9 million euros, under an agreement with the justice.

Volkswagen and brands in the group have also paid three fines totaling 2.3 billion euros to end the investigations.

In civil matters, the last major lawsuit remains that of investors demanding compensation for the plummeting share price after the revelations, opened in September 2018 and still ongoing.

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