DETROIT — A top Volkswagen official in the United States was sentenced on Wednesday to seven years in prison for his role in the German automaker’s decade-long scheme to cheat on diesel emissions tests.
The sentencing of Oliver Schmidt, a former Volkswagen manager in Michigan, is the latest turn in a vast scandal that has tarnished the company’s reputation and has cost the carmaker more than $20 billion in fines and settlements.
The sentence, including a fine of $400,000, was handed down by Judge Sean F. Cox in Federal District Court in Detroit four months after Mr. Schmidt, 48, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the federal government and to violating the Clean Air Act. The sentence was in line with the prosecution’s recommendation.
Mr. Schmidt is the highest-ranking Volkswagen employee to be convicted in the scheme in the United States. His case underscores the Justice Department’s commitment to indicting and prosecuting participants in the company’s efforts to rig pollution tests on hundreds of thousands of diesel vehicles imported for sale in the American market.
But most of the people suspected of taking part in a conspiracy to defraud United States regulators are out of reach of American justice in Germany, which normally does not extradite its own citizens. Mr. Schmidt may turn out to suffer the harshest punishment for the emissions fraud even though he was not by any means the only participant or the highest ranking.
Mr. Schmidt’s arrest in January, more than a year after the scandal erupted, was something of a fluke. He had come to the United States from Germany for a vacation with his wife and was seized as he waited for a departing flight in Miami. Why he risked arrest by traveling to the United States remains a mystery.
Mr. Schmidt, a fluent English speaker, had been a Volkswagen employee since 1997 and was named general manager of the company’s engineering and environmental office in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 2013. He was responsible for the automaker’s relations with the federal and California regulatory agencies that initially pursued the emissions-cheating case.
The Justice Department said in its sentencing memorandum that Mr. Schmidt was a key participant in the decision to conceal the scheme from federal regulators in the United States.
“The defendant has a leadership role within VW,” federal officials said. “As a consequence of that role, he was literally in the room for important decisions during the height of the criminal scheme.”
Prosecutors have also asserted that Mr. Schmidt provided false information to federal agents after the Environmental Protection Agency uncovered in fall 2015 the “defeat devices” that Volkswagen used to circumvent pollution rules.
Mr. Schmidt has played down his role in the development of the devices and in the company’s efforts to cover up its actions and obstruct federal investigators.
In his own sentencing memorandum, Mr. Schmidt sought to limit his sentence to 40 months in prison and a $100,000 fine.
In a letter to the judge, Mr. Schmidt expressed contrition for his role in the cover-up, but said that his loyalty to Volkswagen had led him to be “misused by my own company.” He cited a meeting in 2015 with a senior official at the California Air Resources Board at which he concealed the existence of software that allowed Volkswagen to cheat on emission tests.
“A script, or talking points, I was directed to follow for that meeting was approved by management level supervisors at VW, including a high-ranking in-house lawyer, ” he said in the letter. “Regrettably, I agreed to follow it.”
Mr. Schmidt did not identify any of the Volkswagen superiors who might have pressured him to lie to regulators.
Volkswagen moved to put the scandal behind it in the United States by agreeing this year to plead guilty to felony charges of illegally importing nearly 600,000 vehicles equipped with devices to circumvent emissions standards. It paid $4.3 billion in penalties and was put on probation for three years, with a monitor overseeing its compliance with ethics and regulatory measures.
The scandal also claimed the automaker’s chief executive, Martin Winterkorn, who resigned last year.
Other than Mr. Schmidt, only a company engineer, James Liang, has been sentenced in the United States in the matter, receiving a 40-month term in August after pleading guilty to conspiracy to defraud the government and violating the Clean Air Act.
Another figure in the American investigation, Zaccheo Pamio, an executive in the company’s Audi division, was arrested in Germany in July. As an Italian citizen, he faces possible extradition — unlike five other executives indicted in the United States, all Germans based in their home country.