By Irene Preisinger
MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - The head of Germany's ADAC car club, Europe's largest, resigned in disgrace on Monday after an external audit found it had rigged the results and order of its award for the country's most popular car.
Leading German carmakers Daimler, Volkswagen and BMW immediately said they would hand back the once-coveted annual "Yellow Angel" awards after the audit found irregularities in the counting and ordering.
The revelations have battered the reputation of the ADAC, which before it first admitted wrongdoing last month was one of Germany's most respected institutions with 19 million members.
ADAC president Peter Meyer resigned just before publication of the external audit, which found the order of four of the first five places had been manipulated.
"This is the most serious crisis in our 111-year history," said August Markl, ADAC's vice president, who will take over from Meyer until the next general assembly in May. Thousands of ADAC members have left in disgust.
Markl vowed to bring sweeping reforms to ADAC, which has also come under fire for charging inflated prices for car batteries to stranded motorists. Top executives have also been attacked for inappropriate use of rescue helicopters and jets.
GERMAN GOVT WANTS REFORMS
But Justice Minister Heiko Maas said the ADAC would need to be reorganized. "The current set up of ADAC's organization led to these mistakes," Maas said. "They need to be changed."
The scandal erupted last month when it emerged that its popular "ADAC Motorwelt" magazine had massively inflated readership votes for the "Yellow Angel" award for Germany's favorite car.
ADAC had said that 34,299 motorists endorsed the Volkswagen Golf in an award to determine the most popular car in Germany.
Auditor Deloitte on Monday said only 3,271 votes had been cast for the vehicle, with the accountants adding it found evidence of "willful manipulation" as well as technologically flawed processing of data.
Deloitte examined thousands of pieces of computer data and conducted interviews with ADAC employees. It said the since-departed director of ADAC communications, Peter Ramstetter, had simulated different scenarios on his computer about how the number and order of the votes could be manipulated.
ADAC at first said the total number of votes had been manipulated but not the order.
BMW's 3-series car, for instance, should have been in second place behind the Volkswagen Golf based on votes submitted, but inexplicably did not even make it into the top five. The BMW's 5-series was instead inserted in fifth place.
Volkswagen, which won the Yellow Angel with its Volkswagen Golf model at the end of January, said it would return the award. Daimler said it would return all the Yellow Angels it had been awarded in previous years.
"Awards by the public are of great importance to Daimler, since these reflect the public's opinion. A prerequisite for this is that readership votes are conducted in a correct manner. This was not the case with the Yellow Angel," Daimler said.
ADAC said Deloitte would now examine the voting in the years from 2005 to 2013 because it had found similarities in how the prize had been awarded in those years.
ADAC stands for Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club. Its car test reports are followed closely in a country with a deep affinity for its automobiles.
(Reporting by Edward Taylor, Jan Schwartz and Irene Preisinger; writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Tom Heneghan)