US authorities have charged Volkswagen’s former chief executive officer Martin Winterkorn with conspiracy and wire fraud in relation to the car company’s efforts to cheat on US diesel emissions tests.
Winterkorn, who resigned in 2015 as the scandal was revealed, conspired to defraud the US and violate the Clean Air Act, federal laws designed to control air pollution, according to an indictment unsealed on Thursday in a Michigan federal court. Five other VW executives have also been charged.
He becomes the highest-ranking executive to be charged over “dieselgate” – a scheme where VW used software to trick government emissions testers.
“The indictment unsealed today alleges that Volkswagen’s scheme to cheat its legal requirements went all the way to the top of the company,” said US attorney general Jeff Sessions. “These are serious allegations and we’ll prosecute this case to the full extent of the law.”
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When news of the scheme broke Winterkorn said he was “stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group”. He denied any knowledge of the scandal – which was used to evade pollution limits on nearly 600,000 diesel vehicles.
Last December, Oliver Schmidt, a senior Volkswagen executive, was jailed for seven years and fined $400,000 for his part in the scheme. Schmidt, who had returned to Germany, was arrested while on holiday in Florida.
VW pleaded guilty as a corporation in March, agreeing to pay a record $4.3bn in fines.
Last year Winterkorn told a German parliamentary inquiry that he had no knowledge of the company’s software scam, also the subject of a criminal investigation in Germany.
“It is not comprehensible why I was not informed early and clearly about the measurement problems,” he said.
VW was not immediately available for comment. Germany is unlikely to extradite one of its citizens in order to face trial in the US.