Former VW chief indicted on criminal charges in US court

Former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn has had criminal charges levied against him for allegedly trying to cover up the company’s diesel emissions cheating scandal.

The four-count indictment unsealed on Thursday alleges that the car maker’s top executive at the time knew about the scheme. The 70-year-old is charged with three counts of wire fraud and one of conspiring to violate the Clean Air Act.

The company has admitted to programming its diesel engines to activate pollution controls when being tested in government labs and turning them off when on the road. Last year a team of international researchers discovered the software mechanism used by Volkswagen that allowed vehicles that emitted up to 40 times the amount of nitrogen oxide above EPA regulations to pass the tests. 

However, it is believed that Winterkorn is living in Germany, and may be unlikely to ever see a US courtroom or prison. Germany does not typically allow extradition of its citizens to other countries.

The indictment was filed in secret in March but only unsealed in US District Court on Thursday as Volkswagen held its annual meeting in Germany. Winterkorn resigned days after the scandal over polluting vehicles in the United States became public in September 2015.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Environmental Protection Adminstration chief Scott Pruitt and other senior Trump administration official issued statements criticizing Volkswagen with the indictment, which marks a rare instance of a CEO being subjected to criminal prosecution.

“If you try to deceive the United States, then you will pay a heavy price,” Sessions said.

In contrast with Volkswagen, no individuals were charged at Toyota Motor Corp in connection with its sudden unintended acceleration scandal or at General Motors for the cover-up of a deadly ignition switch defect.

The federal government’s decisions not to prosecute senior financial industry executives in connection with the 2007-2009 financial crisis also has drawn fire from advocates of tougher measures to deter corporate wrongdoing.

The US indictment of Winterkorn is likely to be largely symbolic considering he is almost certain not to come to the United States to face the charges.

Volkswagen settled criminal charges with the US Justice Department in 2017 and agreed to a $4.3bn (£3.2bn) payment. In total, the automaker has agreed to spend more than $25bn (£18.4bn) in the United States to address claims from owners, environmental regulators, states and dealers.

The company also has offered to buy back about 500,000 polluting vehicles from US buyers, many of which are now stored in parking lots.

Volkswagen has been fighting to move past the emissions scandal, vowing to spend billions on a number of new electric vehicles as it has seen US sales rebound. The indictment reopens the question of whether other senior executives knew about the scandal, which threatens to prolong the crisis. 

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