House Panel Spends Hours Questioning VW's CEO Of U.S. Business



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Volkswagen's top U.S. executive was taken to task on Thursday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It was the first congressional hearing since the company's emissions scandal broke.

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Surely, this is not the highest moment in the life of a CEO. Michael Horn had to sit before a congressional committee for three hours yesterday, taking questions and comments. Horn is the leader of Volkswagen Group of America. So it was his job to say what he knew or rather what he did not know about revelations that his company cheated on federal emissions tests. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Horn is a veteran Volkswagen executive. But during his testimony, he quickly distanced himself from his German colleagues. He told members of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee he was not aware that his company was cheating on diesel emissions tests until early last month, shortly before the news became public.


MICHAEL HORN: These events - and I fully agree on this - are deeply troubling. I did not think that something like this was possible at the Volkswagen Group. We have broken the trust of our customers, dealerships, employees as well as the regulators.

NOGUCHI: Horn echoed Volkswagen's statements that the company would do its best to make things right for consumers, dealers and employees. Republican Marsha Blackburn expressed concern for the Volkswagen plant workers in her home state of Tennessee. She asked Horn how long it might take to make consumers whole.


MARSHA BLACKBURN: You are certain the remedy will end up being a multiyear approach?

HORN: Yes. If you look alone at 430,000 cars - and the repairs might take five to 10 hours, even in order to fix this, you know, technical fixes. And if you look at your recall history in this market, also with NHTSA, then these actions taking, you know, one, two years minimum - minimum.

NOGUCHI: At times during the hearing, Horn seemed to sympathize more with his inquisitors than his own bosses, as he did during this exchange with Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky.


JAN SCHAKOWSKY: It sounded like you were saying that the fix could manage fuel economy, engine performance and emissions, that all of that could be fixed. If that's so, why didn't Volkswagen do that initially? Why wouldn't you make a car that would achieve those goals?

HORN: I think it's a great question.

NOGUCHI: But it's a question Horn wasn't able to answer. New York Republican Chris Collins said the company was continuing to mislead its shareholders by underestimating the cost of the scandal to the company. And he called the company arrogant in its response.


CHRIS COLLINS: And I cannot accept VW's portrayal of this as something by a couple of rogue software engineers.

NOGUCHI: It is highly unlikely, Collins said, that the company was able to deceive regulators for seven years without the knowledge of a larger circle of top executives. New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone said he was tired of hearing about car companies' misdeeds.


FRANK PALLONE: Over the past five years, the world's three largest automakers have come before this committee to admit that they have cheated the system and lied to American customers. This seems to be a pervasive culture of deception in the auto industry, and it has to stop now.

NOGUCHI: The scandal isn't going away anytime soon, however. VW faces similar questions in Europe, where the carmaker is a much bigger player. Yesterday, prosecutors said German police raided Volkswagen offices in search of documents connected to the scandal. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.