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Martin Winterkorn, Ex-VW Chief, Charged by Germany in Diesel Emissions Scheme

BERLIN — German prosecutors on Monday filed aggravated fraud charges against Martin Winterkorn, the former chief executive of Volkswagen who led the company when it deceived regulators about its vehicles’ diesel exhaust levels.

The charges are the first criminal indictment in Germany against an individual in connection with the diesel scandal, which has cost Volkwagen tens of billions of dollars since it first came to light in 2015.

In charging Mr. Winterkorn and four Volkswagen managers whose names were not released, the public prosecutor’s office in Braunschweig tied the five to events reaching as far back as 2006, when the deception was initially conceived.

The timeline is significant because it rejects initial claims by Volkswagen that senior management became aware of the so-called defeat devices used to cheat emissions tests only after being confronted by the United States environmental authorities in 2015.

The criminal charges represent an important development in how the German courts are dealing with the fallout of a scandal that has shaken Germans’ trust in their car industry. The Dieselaffäre, as it is known in the German press, has been widely debated in Germany.

They also show how the diesel scandal continues to hang over Volkswagen, the world’s No. 1 maker of vehicles last year. Even after paying $33 billion in fines and settlements related to the scandal, the carmaker continues to face a legal challenges and investigations from authorities in the United States and Germany.

The indictment on Monday includes charges of breach of trust, tax evasion and false certification, either directly or by aiding in such crimes. If convicted, Mr. Winterkorn could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

The prosecutor’s office also said it would seek repayment of bonuses, the highest of which was nearly $12.5 million.

Mr. Winterkorn, prosecutors said, continued to conceal the emissions fraud even after he was told that outsiders were questioning the company’s emissions data. The prosecutor’s office also charged Mr. Winterkorn with approving a useless software update in 2014 at a cost of 23 million euros (around $26 million) despite knowing that it would not eliminate the defeat devices.

More than nine million cars with faked emissions tests were licensed in Europe and the United States, the indictment said.

Mr. Winterkorn stepped down as Volkswagen’s chief executive in 2015, and has previously denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer, Felix Dörr said on Monday that the prosecutor’s office had not given his team sufficient access to the files for it to comment on the charges.

No arrest warrant was issued. Mr. Winterkorn is under indictment in the United States, and is unlikely to leave Germany for fear of being extradited (Germany does not extradite its own citizens).

Volkswagen declined to comment on the charges, saying in a statement that these were investigations against individuals.

In March, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit against Volkswagen, accusing the company of defrauding American investors. The commission said that Mr. Winterkorn had been aware of what it called a “massive” emissions fraud as early as November 2007. Similarly, a trial looking at the company’s responsibility toward investors has been taking place in civil law courtroom in Braunschweig since October.

In May 2018, the Department of Justice indicted Mr. Winterkorn and several other Volkswagen executives on charges that they conspired in the rigging of diesel vehicles to feign compliance with federal pollution standards.

Klaus Ziehe, the senior public prosecutor in charge of the case, praised the collaboration between the Department of Justice and his office.

“The Americans were on the case earlier than us, so we profited from their experiences,” he said. “Conversely, we shared with them the results of official questioning of people involved with the case.”

The prosecutor’s office also said it was still investigating 36 other individuals who could face charges, though no timeline was given. Other than Mr. Winterkorn, who is considered a public person, none of the other four people charged — or the three dozen investigated — were named because of German privacy laws.

The 692-pages outlining the charges still need to be approved by a Lower Saxony state court, in what is largely seen as a formality. Both the prosecutor’s office and the Lower Saxony court are based in Braunschweig, near Wolfsburg, where Volkswagen’s headquarters is based.


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