Is there a Watergate Scandal Emerging at Volkswagen?

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Watergate is shorthand for a gradual but remorseless process through which a powerful leader becomes destroyed. Are there parallels in the current scandals at Volkswagen which have resulted in imprisonment for several middle-ranking executives? Will the very top leadership in Germany eventually be brought down?

Earlier this week [February 2008] Klaus Volkert, the former head of Volkswagen’s employee council, was jailed for his role in a corruption scandal.

According to The BBC, Volkert

was found guilty of incitement to breach of trust in the case, which involved employee representatives getting illegal privileges.

We have commented over the last year of the leadership troubles that have been hitting the corporate reputation of Europe’s premier car manufacturer.

I picked up the scent of something of interest, because of a little surge of numbers of visitors to this site searching for news about the VW company. That’s when I came across a Reuters report

Volkswagen supervisory board member Guenter Lenz has resigned his seat, becoming the latest casualty of a scandal involving the use of corporate funds to bribe the carmaker’s senior labour leaders. According to a statement from the Hanover works council, Lenz told employees on Tuesday at a plant staff meeting that he would now resign his board seat and his post as the site’s works council boss after previously ceasing to actively execute his duties. The public prosecutor’s office in Brunswick accuses him of aiding and abetting fraud and partaking in parties with prostitutes paid for out of a VW slush fund. Lenz, who has also resigned from the Lower Saxony state parliament, would accept a court sentence for his wrongdoing, the Hanover works council said.

The scandal has already cost the jobs of VW management board member Peter Hartz, group works council chief Klaus Volkert, as well as a member of the German federal parliament.

An earlier post [updated in October 2007] looked at the history of leadership problems at VW, concluding that
… the financial markets have absorbed the uncertainties regarding VW’s less secure future when and if the Volkswagen protection laws are removed. They are also unshaken by the leadership scandals, and by the risk that VW is falling behind Toyota in the development of its hybrid car range. (Strictly speaking, that is a wider concern for the future success of the German premium automobile marques, VW’s Audi, but even more so, BMW and Mercedes). At least Martin Winterkorn seems to be enjoying a leadership honeymoon.

Martin Winterkorn appears to have been parachuted in as someone untained with earlier scandals.

Back to Watergate

President Nixon’s downfall is now a classic of modern cultural mythology. The great leader is brought low, despite all efforts he made to protect himself.

At first, only the minor players in the drama are attacked. But as each each in turn is weakened, it becomes easier for a more important figure to come under attack. The drama is sustained with the prospect of defeat for the most powerful figure of all.

Forward to Volkswagen

Are we witnessing at Volkswagen a story that is gradually working its way towards the very highest of executives associated with the scandal?

I can only observe that denials are being made. The denials may be a necessary strategy to protect individuals from the hints that are emerging in the press.

Until something more substantial emerges, I shall not be naming names.

Acknowledgement:

Image of Watergate was downloaded from Professor Olsen’s fascinating history site

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