By Michael Biesecker, Tom Krisher and Dee-Ann Durbin ,AP
WASHINGTON — Six high-level Volkswagen employees from Germany have been indicted in the U.S. in the automaker’s emissions-cheating scandal as prosecutors made good on efforts to charge individuals in a corporate corruption case.
But bringing them to trial in the U.S. is another matter.
In announcing the federal charges and a corporate plea bargain by Volkswagen, Justice Department prosecutors on Wednesday detailed a large and elaborate scheme inside the German automaker to commit fraud and then cover it up, with at least 40 employees allegedly involved in destroying evidence.
The company agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges and pay US$4.3 billion — by far the biggest fine ever levied by the government against an automaker.
“Volkswagen obfuscated, they denied and they ultimately lied,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.
But prosecutors may have trouble bringing the executives to trial in the U.S. German law generally bars extradition of the country’s citizens except within the European Union. Privately, Justice officials expressed little optimism that the five VW executives still at large will be arrested, unless they surrender or travel outside Germany.
Still, the criminal charges are a major breakthrough for a Justice Department that been under pressure to hold individuals accountable for corporate misdeeds ever since the 2008 financial crisis.
U.S. authorities are still investigating just how high the scheme went, and held out the possibility of charges against more VW executives.
“We will continue to pursue the individuals responsible for orchestrating this damaging conspiracy,” Lynch said.
VW admitted installing software in diesel engines on nearly 600,000 VW, Porsche and Audi vehicles in the U.S. that activated pollution controls during government tests and switched them off in real-world driving. The software allowed the cars to spew harmful nitrogen oxide at up to 40 times above the legal limit.
U.S. regulators confronted VW about the software after university researchers discovered differences in testing and real-world emissions. Volkswagen at first denied the use of the so-called defeat device but finally admitted it in September 2015.
Even after that admission, prosecutors said, company employees were busy deleting computer files and other evidence.
The fines easily eclipse the US$1.2 billion penalty levied against Toyota in 2014 over unintended acceleration in its cars. VW also agreed to pay an additional US$154 million to California for violating its clean air laws.