Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Selected Dirty Money episodes for corporate compliance

Dirty Money is a documentary series that premiered on Netflix in January 2018.  The series focuses on different case studies of corporate corruption.  The documentaries delve into the political and cultural causes behind the key events in each case, motivations of the individuals involved, and the way that society has been impacted by these situations, some of which remain under investigation or legal challenge.  While all the episodes are interesting to study for general themes of corporate compliance and/or ethical culture and organizational integrity, four of the episodes are especially relevant.


Regulatory and compliance omissions in the Volkswagen emissions scandal

The Volkswagen emissions scandal, also known as “Emissionsgate,” kicked off in 2015 when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notified the carmaker that it was in violation of the Clean Air Act.  With the altered engine emissions controls, the programming misrepresented nitrogen dioxide output so that it appeared to meet US market standards.  In reality, however, the real performance of the vehicles on the road without the altered programming for the testing environment resulted in output that exceeded the regulatory limit by up to 40 times.  For a basic overview of the Volkswagen emissions scandal as it unfolded since 2015, check out this primer from the BBC:  Volkswagen: The scandal explained.

The altered emissions results were ultimately exposed due to re-testing.  The International Council on Clean Transportation accumulated research from a variety of sources which upon study showed additional emissions in road tests from those recorded in the regulatory testing environment.  Once these non-conforming results were provided to the California Air Resources Board in 2014, they were ultimately escalated to the EPA, resulting in the investigation and enforcement action which led to the Clean Air Act notice of violation.  The investigation conducted by the EPA demonstrated that from 2008 to 2015, Volkswagen had intentionally modified many diesel engines in its vehicles to fraudulently “pass” regulatory testing.

In the aftermath of the EPA notice, Volkswagen was subjected to investigations in various countries.  The fix for the emissions issues to bring them into true compliance with the regulatory standard may cost the company as much as $15 billion or more, with fines so far in the US alone of almost $3 billion and several executives facing personal criminal charges for their role in the fraud.

One of the striking aspects of this particular corporate scandal is that as the corporate misconduct was exposed, it showed that Volkswagen took advantage of the regulatory testing by exploiting design and engineering knowledge in making engine construction choices expressly in order to deceive it.  In many cases of consumer safety or standard violation recalls, the manufacturer merely fails to make required changes or delays doing so, resulting in unsafe conditions or violation of regulatory and legal requirements.  Similarly, defeat devices which “trick” regulatory testing systems (actually codes programmed into the vehicles’ computerized control panels) are nothing new in the automotive industry, as explained in this Ars Technica piece.

In the Volkswagen’s case, however, as explained in this Investor’s Business Daily article, the carmaker made redesign choices to its emissions system that were not practical for business purposes but directly enabled the testing manipulation.  Then, when faced with a need to demonstrate compliance in order to access the market, instead of altering planned performance or gas economy standards, the company opted to game the system with installing defeat devices on the very system it installed knowing it would need to be defeated and would enable doing so.

So why would a company make all of these conscious choices to dupe the system and spend money on deceptive systems instead of making the same amount of effort to establish real compliance and avoid the dishonesty?  At its root is most commonly what was referred to in lawsuits against Volkswagen by several states as a business culture of “corporate arrogance.”  As this NPR article explains in a nutshell, Volskwagen thought it could get away with the fraud because others in the industry did it too and because it was Volkswagen.  The company rigged its vehicles after going to great lengths to determine that it was definitely illegal to do so, against clear legal advice and in light of full knowledge of the consequences, and in a culture of non-compliance which rewarded cheating and did not take responsibility or model appropriate conduct.

Nowhere is this values deficiency in the Volkswagen corporate culture more evident than in the reaction by the CEO, Matthias Mueller, to the public outcry in response to the fraud.  This interview with NPR shows how problematic the tone and conduct at the top was in the public handling of the scandal.  Rather than modelling accountability and transparency, Mueller instead insisted that there were no ethical issues at Volkswagen and that rather the emissions fraud was due to a technical problem in the company’s interpretation of US law.  Mueller repeatedly asserted that the company did not lie or deceive but instead misunderstood US legal requirements, a disingenuous and unconvincing defense for a major global corporation which must contend with a complicated fabric of regulatory and legal frameworks all over the world to meet its duties in doing business.

The gap created by this purported legal misinterpretation could and should have been filled by a values-based approach, where taking corporate social responsibility for environmental impact and making business decisions based upon best collective outcome rather than ease and expediency, with some enablement of future cheating as a side benefit.  Demonstrating integrity is not as simple as apologizing once you get caught, and portraying violations as mistakes is not an example of ethical leadership or sustainable business values.

For more on EPA compliance, check back on Thursday, January 25, for a round-up on current rule-making and enforcement trends at the agency.