A longtime Volkswagen engineer pleaded guilty in federal court to charges he helped design and implement a software system that helped the German automaker’s diesel engines defeat emissions tests.
The plea is the first from a staffer involved in the cheating scandal, and it signals the Justice Department is serious about holding Volkswagen employees personally and criminally responsible for producing about 500,000 cars that spew up to 40 times the legally allowed amount of pollutants into the atmosphere.
James Robert Liang, 62, a Newbury Park, Calif., resident, pleaded guilty in federal court in Detroit to a single charge of conspiring to defraud the United States, commit wire fraud and violate the Clean Air Act. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Neither Liang nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
As part of the plea agreement, Liang will cooperate with the government in its ongoing criminal investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement. Such cooperation is generally a sign that federal prosecutors are seeking to charge others in a scheme.
The plea agreement describes a conspiracy that spans nearly 10 years.
Liang had worked in Volkswagen AG’s diesel development department in Wolfsburg, Germany, starting in 1983. In 2006, he and his “co-conspirators” started work on a new diesel engine for U.S. vehicles, the plea agreement says.
As described in a 25-page indictment unsealed Friday along with the plea deal, Liang and his fellow “co-conspirators” at Volkswagen knew “from almost the beginning of VW’s process to design its new ‘clean diesel’ vehicles” that the cars “would not meet U.S. emissions standards.”
When they realized they could not design an engine that would adhere to the strict U.S. emissions standards, while also delivering solid road performance, they then created and implemented so-called “defeat devices” – software that could recognize when cars were being tested “in order to cheat” the tests, according to court papers.
If it detected the vehicle was undergoing a test, it told the car to emit only enough nitrogen oxide to pass the inspection. Otherwise, the court papers allege, it permitted the cars to pump substantially more nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere.
In a statement released Friday, the Justice Department said Liang admitted to using the software while working on the diesel engine and “assisted in making the defeat device work.”
Volkswagen said in a statement that it is “continuing to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Justice,” but couldn’t comment on the indictment.
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