An engineer at Volkswagen has pleaded guilty to aiding the German automaker’s efforts to cheat emissions tests, thus becoming the first individual convicted criminally in the United States in a scandal that is wide-ranging that to date has cost the auto giant billions of dollars.
James Liang, the VW engineer, who has worked with the German automaker since 1983, agreed with U.S. authorities to cooperate in their ongoing investigation, indicated the plea agreement he filed with a federal court.
The cooperation suggests that prosecutors will be preparing other cases against more people at Volkswagen.
Liang was charged by prosecutors with conspiring to defraud the United States, violate the Clean Air Act and commit wire fraud. In January, he will be sentenced and faces as many as five years behind bars and a fine of $250,000.
He was mentioned as well in a possible civil suit as the person developing the devices that were able to help certain VW models appear to have engines that burned cleaner during emission tests than while being driven.
Liang’s plea is the first time any individual faced sanctions in this sprawling investigation by the U.S. into the VW emissions scandal.
The automaker continues to hold talks with U.S. authorities on a possible criminal settlement and will likely face financial penalties for that investigations, said people who are familiar with the ongoing discussions.
A VW spokesperson said the automaker was continuing to cooperate with authorities in the investigation but did not comment on Liang’s case.
Liang, who is 62, said in a courtroom Friday he knew VW did not disclose the devices to defeat the emissions tests to regulators.
He added that due to that he was guilty. When Liang left the courtroom, he did not speak with reporters.
The plea on Friday is certain to carry an impact over to the European proceedings taking place in Germany with plaintiffs across Europe suing VW, said one analyst.
According to Friday’s plea agreement, Liang and his colleagues started to design the new engines back in 2006 but realized that the engines would not meet both expectations of the customer and new stricter emissions standards in the U.S.
Instead, the workers designed software able to recognize when a vehicle was being tested so the emission controls would be turned on.
The vehicles in 2006 that were involved include Golf, Jetta and others. The conspiracy also included models from 2009 to 2015, until the cheating was revealed during September of 2015.
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