‘Letters of Transit’ VW CEO Diess gets ‘safe passage’ to travel in US amid Dieselgate probe

After US court indicted ex-CEO Martin Winterkorn, the Justice Department has assured the new CEO that he will not be arrested in connection with Dieselgate if he visits the US.
Home free.

Volkswagen’s new chief executive, Herbert Diess, has received assurances from the US Justice Department that he will not face arrest or detention in connection with the Dieselgate investigation if he visits the United States, people familiar with the company told Handelsblatt. News agency Bloomberg had reported the news earlier on Monday, citing sources.

The rare “safe conduct pass” was revealed after the indictment against former VW chief executive Martin Winterkorn last week, charging him with conspiracy to deceive US regulators regarding the emissions-cheating software in VW diesel vehicles.

The safe passage guarantee enables Mr. Diess to travel freely to visit VW’s far-flung global operations. But it also brings a new dimension of drama to the scandal, evoking as it does the fabled — and fictional — “letters of transit” in the film “Casablanca,” giving free passage to their holders throughout Nazi-occupied territory.

The unusual deal probably indicates that US investigators have determined Diess is unlikely to be charged.

The German carmaker and the US Department of Justice declined to comment on the matter.

The unusual deal probably indicates that US investigators have determined Mr. Diess is unlikely to be charged, law experts and former prosecutor prosecutors said. There is some question whether a crisis-management meeting the former BMW manager attended shortly after joining VW in 2015 would make him liable for failing to disclose plans to deceive regulators.

Disclosure of the safe passage deal is sure to exacerbate the growing impatience on the VW board to put the scandal behind them, and particularly to speed up the company’s internal investigation. Any legal action by the company against its former CEO would depend on the result of this internal probe.

Germany rarely extradites its citizens to a non-European Union country, so Mr. Winterkorn is unlikely to face trial in the United States. But the risk of arrest does restrict his freedom of movement, in effect confining him to Germany. Mr. Winterkorn has consistently denied he had any previous knowledge of the emissions-cheating software.

The risk of arrest is real. The former head of regulatory compliance in the United States, Oliver Schmidt, was arrested in Florida when he returned to the US for vacation in January 2017 and was subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison.

Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. To contact the author: [email protected].