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Germany's main auto club under pressure after official tampers with favourite car voting

A company sign is pictured at a new office of Germany's main automobile club ADAC in Potsdam, Germany, Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, dpa, Ralf Hirschberger

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A company sign is pictured at a new office of Germany's main automobile club ADAC in Potsdam, Germany, Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, dpa, Ralf Hirschberger

BERLIN - Germany's main automobile club apologized on Monday and conceded that its image as a trusted institution has taken a knock after a top official admitted to manipulating the figures in a poll on the nation's favourite car.

ADAC says it is Europe's biggest auto club with more than 18 million members, offering breakdown help, safety tests and many other services to a nation of car enthusiasts.

Last week, it angrily denied a report in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that voting in a poll of readers of its monthly magazine on Germany's favourite car was tampered with — before announcing over the weekend that communications chief Michael Ramstetter had admitted to the manipulation and quit.

It said the number of votes submitted was inflated, but the ranking itself wasn't changed. German automaker Volkswagen's Golf was the winner of the most recent vote.

Ramstetter "made a full confession to having, in an incredibly brazen way, manipulated upward the number of votes ... this year and, he says, in recent years too," ADAC general manager Karl Obermair said at a televised news conference in Munich. Obermair said the official took "sole and full responsibility" for what happened, but didn't say what Ramstetter's motive was.

ADAC did not specify how inflated the numbers were, but the Sueddeutsche Zeitung said they were exaggerated by ten times.

"We are sorry for this incident; it shakes the ADAC the core because we were viewed as one of the most trustworthy and serious organizations in Germany," Obermair said. "This reputation is certainly tarnished."

He pledged a full investigation, with help from outside experts.

Obermair's apology and pledge came amid mounting pressure, including from government officials. The Justice Ministry, which is also responsible for consumer protection, pressed it to clear up the matter.

"Anyone whose evaluations have an influence on people's buying habits has a special responsibility to consumers," Justice Minister Heiko Maas said, adding that ADAC "must now do justice to its responsibility."

Mechthild Heil, the consumer affairs spokeswoman in parliament for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, said the affair raised questions as to whether ADAC "doesn't also tamper with statistics in other areas in its own interest." She called for a restructuring of the club to avoid conflicts of interest.

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