In a wrongful termination lawsuit, Volkswagen was said to have obstructed justice by deleting data relating to Dieselgate days after the automaker was notified of probes by the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Daniel Donovan, a former staffer in VW’s office of general counsel, claims he was terminated Dec. 6 for refusing to destroy what might have been evidence in the government’s investigations into the Dieselgate scandal.
Donovan, whose duties included information management and electronic discovery, worked in VW’s product liaison office, a part of the office of general counsel. In his suit, Donovan says the automaker deleted data through Sept. 21. The date is important because it is three days after VW received notice that 482,000 supposedly “clean” diesels violated U.S. emissions rules. Donovan launched suit, apparently claiming coverage under Michigan’s Whistleblower law. Whistleblowers bring valuable information to the government in the face of staunch opposition by their employers. That opposition could mean termination.
Donovan’s suit maintains that there was more “accidental” data deletion following Sept. 21, including an incident Oct. 5 involving VW “home drives,” the suit says. Further, the suit maintains that VW’s Information Technology department (IT) was not preserving backups. Donovan’s suit was filed on March 7 in Oakland County, Mich., Circuit Court. It does not specify the types of data deleted.
Donovan believed the VW’s action violated a hold placed on the automaker’s documents by the Department of Justice. Those documents, according to the suit, might be significant to its investigation. Indeed, the DOJ’s probe may mean criminal charges. Further, the department recently served VW with a subpoena under a law designed to crack down on bank fraud.
As one could expect, VW pushed back. “The circimstances of Mr. Donovan’s departure were unrelated to the diesel emissions issue,” VW’s statement read. “We believe his claim of wrongful termination is without merit.” Donovan’s attorney declined to comment as did the Department of Justice and EPA.
Automotive News Tuesday contacted Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. He said VW could face obstruction problems if it intentionally deleted data. Henning continued that even if the data were removed by a rogue employee, VW would still bear responsibility. He also indicated that a grand jury could ask Donovan for information. “The information in the complaint, if true, would put VW in even more hot water with the government because it would show a distinct lack of cooperation. At a minimum, the Justice Department is going to want to talk to everyone involved, and get information about any deletions. There is usually backup data available, so it’s unlikely anything was irretrievably lost, but that does not placate prosecutors, who don’t care for a ‘no harm, no foul’ attitude.”
Automotive News provided information for this story.