USA prosecutors charge former VW chief Winterkorn

Martin Winterkorn

Martin Winterkorn

Former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn is the latest ex-VW executive to be criminally charged in connection with the German automaker's emissions cheating scandal.

The indictment charges that Winterkorn was informed of the cheating scheme in July 2015 and approved a strategy aimed at keeping U.S. regulators in the dark.

Volkswagen initially suggested that only lower level executives knew of the cheating, but the indictment alleges Mr Winterkorn was informed of VW's diesel emissions cheating in May 2014 and in July 2015 and agreed with other senior VW executives "to continue to perpetrate the fraud and deceive U.S. regulators", prosecutors said.

The remaining three counts charge Winterkorn with wire fraud in connection with the scheme.

In March 2017, VW pleaded guilty to criminal charges that it deceived USA regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board by installing so-called defeat devices, which were created to cheat emissions tests, in the diesel vehicles' emissions control systems.

VW has admitted fitting up to 11 million diesel vehicles with software that could falsely show they complied with emissions tests.

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The indictment alleges that Winterkorn specifically approved the efforts to mislead regulators about the falsified emissions claims.

"Volkswagen deceived American regulators and defrauded American consumers for years", said Matthew Schneider, US Attorney for the State of MI, in a statement.

Winterkorn, who resigned amid the scandal in September 2015 after eight years at the helm at the German automaker, is believed to be in Germany, federal authorities said. "These are serious allegations and we'll prosecute this case to the full extent of the law".

Winterkorn is the highest-ranking VW official to be charged in the USA for his role in the cover-up.

The company itself pleaded guilty to three criminal charges in January past year, and paid fines totalling $US4.3 billion. As a German citizen, Winterkorn is nearly certain not to come to the United States, and to seek protection under German extradition law, Reuters noted. The company already pleaded guilty to various related charges in U.S. federal court, and it has paid out billions of dollars in fines and buybacks to former customers.

The indictment reopens the question of whether other senior VW executives knew about the scandal, which threatens to prolong the crisis.