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VW emissions case highlights problem with corporate wrongdoing

A Volkswagen Passat is offered for sale at

A Volkswagen Passat is offered for sale at a dealership on Sept. 18, 2015 in Chicago. The Environmental Protection Agency has accused Volkswagen of installing software on nearly 500,000 diesel cars in the U.S. to evade federal emission regulations. Credit: Getty Images / Scott Olson

The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a criminal investigation of Volkswagen AG after the carmaker admitted to cheating on air-pollution tests of its "clean-diesel" cars.

The software manipulation has caused the stock value of the German company to tank and put its leadership in jeopardy. Beyond holding the corporation accountable -- it faces up to $18 billion in U.S. fines -- federal prosecutors should take a hard look at prosecuting company officials who might have perpetrated a cynical and deceitful attempt to avoid critical U.S. and state regulations to limit pollution.

Volkswagen has apologized for creating software that allowed about 500,000 of its diesel Golf, Jetta, Beetle and Passat models sold in the United States from 2009-15 to evade emissions tests. Now it's saying it sold 11 million such vehicles worldwide. How much does such pollution matter? A recent study by an international group of scientists concluded that air pollution kills 3.3 million people annually, including almost 55,000 within the United States.

This kind of bad acting isn't unusual. But punishing individuals is.

For more than a decade, General Motors hid evidence of an ignition defect to which 124 deaths are linked. But a $900 million penalty announced last week against GM charges no one and allows the company to have its record wiped clean if it behaves for three years.

Last year, Toyota agreed to pay a $1.2 billion fine and admitted it knew about sticky accelerator pedals and defective floor mats and hid the defects from the public. This horrifying behavior coincided with numerous deaths, but again no individuals were charged.

The Justice Department said earlier this month it would change its approach, refocusing on individual criminal charges when it investigates and prosecutes white-collar crime. That's long overdue, but no one's going to believe it until white-collar criminals actually go to prison.

Americans are sick of a system in which the big guys escape the handcuffs and ride safely off into Rich retirements.