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Ex-Volkswagen CEO denies early knowledge of diesel emissions cheating

By Andreas Cremer

BERLIN (Reuters) - Former Volkswagen <VOWG_p.DE> Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn refused to tell German lawmakers when he first learned about systematic exhaust emissions cheating but said it was no earlier than VW has officially admitted.

VW has said its executive board did not learn of the software violations until late August 2015 and formally reported the cheating to authorities in the United States in early September that year.

Upon being asked whether he had known about software cheating earlier, Winterkorn told a German parliamentary committee on Thursday: "That is not the case."

Winterkorn declined to be more specific about when he was informed because it was a matter that was still being investigated by German prosecutors.

"I too am looking for satisfactory answers," Winterkorn said in his first public remarks since he apologized for the scandal in a televised statement on Sept. 22, 2015, the day before he resigned as head of Europe's largest automaker.

"It's incomprehensible why I wasn't informed early and unambiguously," added Winterkorn, who oversaw a doubling in Volkswagen's sales and an almost tripling in profit during his eight years in charge.

VW last week agreed to pay the largest ever U.S. criminal fine levied on an automaker to settle charges that it conspired for nearly 10 years to cheat on diesel emission tests.

In total, VW has now agreed to spend up to $22 billion in the United States to address claims from owners, environmental regulators, U.S. states and dealers.

Poland's consumer and competition authority on Thursday became the third European consumer watchdog to investigate VW's cheating, raising pressure on the automaker to consider compensation for car owners as in the U.S.

"DIFFICULT TO COMPREHEND"

Winterkorn's testimony before German lawmakers lasted about two hours, with a 10-minute introductory stat‎ement followed by questions from lawmakers.

The 69-year-old responded to all questions he was asked without help from two lawyers who accompanied him.

Herbert Behrens, head of the eight-member committee, expressed his frustration after the session.

"We were not able to achieve any essential new understanding," the opposition Left Party lawmaker told reporters.

VW's legal adviser Gerwin Postel, another witness, invoked his right to silence, with his lawyer citing ongoing investigations by prosecutors in the city of Braunschweig.

Volkswagen's management board is being asked to explain how soon it informed investors of a scandal which became known as dieselgate and spiraled into the company's worst business crisis.

VW is facing 8.8 billion euros ($9.4 billion) in damage claims from investors seeking compensation for the collapse of VW's share price once the scandal broke.

Upon being asked whether he thought the diesel cheating could still be blamed on just a few engineers, Winterkorn acknowledged that more than a handful of staffers knew but said he did not know how many people were involved.

Asked why he himself had no earlier knowledge, Winterkorn said: "Software applications represent a very specific area of work in engine development."

Earlier this month, Volkswagen admitted to U.S. prosecutors that about 40 employees had deleted thousands of documents in an effort to hide systematic emissions cheating from regulators.

Winterkorn, who has taken no public role since leaving VW, said he too was still attempting to come to terms with the scandal.

"From outside it is difficult to comprehend how something like this could happen at a company that is so much preoccupied with quality. Even I don't."

(Writing by Edward Taylor; Additional reporting by Gernot Heller; Editing by Maria Sheahan/Keith Weir)