This “Whistleblower Spotlight” features former Volkswagen employee Daniel Donovan, candidate for 2016 Whistleblower of the Year. Donovan came forward early this year, alleging Volkswagen illegally destroyed electronic data in the days after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) publicly accused it of cheating emissions tests. Volkswagen was facing billions of dollars in penalties for programming its diesel-powered vehicles to switch off pollution controls following emissions tests. By manipulating its vehicles’ software, Volkswagen was able to skirt legal nitrogen oxide emission limits designed to mitigate the harmful impact of excessive emissions on the environment and human health.
Donovan, who worked in information technology, believes he was fired for refusing to participate in destroying evidence and obstructing justice. He says the company violated its obligation to preserve evidence while under investigation. It also kept documents from an outside accounting firm conducting an investigation. Shortly after he refused to take part and raised his concerns with supervisors, including Volkswagen’s corporate counsel, Donovan was fired. He had devoted seven years of his career to Volkswagen.
Volkswagen had previously contended for a year that inconsistencies between emission levels in the field versus in the test lab were simply technical glitches, even when faced with independent scientists reporting inexplicable discrepancies after repeated testing. Only after the EPA confronted it with evidence it had used a defeat device did Volkswagen issue a mea culpa.
But according to Donovan, even as it was publicly admitting its deceit and promising to cooperate with regulators, Volkswagen was destroying documents, suggesting it still hoped to minimize its culpability. Donovan was the first to publicize what was apparently a systemic problem. Several months after Donovan came forward, German prosecutors said they were investigating a Volkswagen manager in Germany suspected of instructing employees to destroy or remove documents in the weeks before the EPA’s public accusation.
Destroying evidence is a serious problem among corporations worldwide, and can be difficult to prosecute. Absent the courage of insiders like Donovan, it would often be impossible for regulators and the public to identify. Congress has repeatedly recognized as much by strengthening corporate whistleblower protections, often in the wake of scandals with evidentiary problems caused by document destruction.
For his fearlessness in taking a stand—one that cost him his career—against a giant automaker seeking to escape accountability for polluting our environment, we nominate Daniel Donovan for Whistleblower of the Year.
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