Volkswagen pleaded guilty to three felony charges for its emissions cheating scandal and will pay a $4.3 billion civil penalty, the largest for any automaker, as six of the company’s executives were indicted, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.
Justice announced criminal indictments of six company executives on charges including conspiracy to defraud the American people as well as charges of wire fraud and transporting vehicles across borders with the intent to violate U.S. law. The company installed defeat device software in 600,000 “clean diesel” vehicles that allowed the vehicles to pass emissions tests but then switched to a normal mode after testing that allowed the cars to spew about 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen into the atmosphere, violating the Clean Air Act.
Evidence uncovered shows the company’s top executives knew about the defeat devices and covered them up for years in order to sell the vehicles in the U.S.
Volkswagen will pay a $2.8 billion fine and a $1.5 billion civil settlement under the plea deal in which the company admitted wrongdoing.
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“Serious crimes have serious consequences,” said Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Wednesday that when the automaker was challenged over its “egregious” emissions violations, company executives obfuscated and “ultimately lied.”
The criminal indictment said one of the six senior exectives, Oliver Schmidt, 48, was arrested on Saturday while in Miami. The remaining officials are thought to be living in Germany and are not in custody.
“This case sends a clear message to corporations, no matter how big or small, that if you lie and disregard rules that protect consumers and the environment, you will be caught and held accountable,” said FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe in a statement Wednesday.
The consumer advocate group Public Citizen, founded by former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, is calling for all VW officials in the criminal indictment to be tracked down and arrested. “Today, the Justice Department has meted out justice, importantly insisting both that the company plead guilty to felony charges and that executives be held criminally accountable,” said Robert Weissman, the group’s president.
Weissman said there hasn’t been enough action to protect consumers, asking whether President-elect Trump’s Justice Department will “follow today’s positive example going forward.”
Nitrogen pollution can cause smog and release fine particulate matter into the air. Those pollutants are linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses that can cause premature death. Children, the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions see increased risk for harm when they are exposed to the pollutants, the EPA says.
The scandal forced top company officials to resign and led to a drop in sales for the German automaker.