Volkswagen ex-CEO indicted in emissions defeat device scandal

PHOTO: The VW logo sits on a sign outside the Volkswagen AG factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, May 19, 2017.PlayKrisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn has been charged with alleged conspiracy to defraud the United States and VW customers in the so-called "defeat device" scheme, the Department of Justice announced today.

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Winterkorn, who served as chairman of the board from 2007 to 2015, is the highest ranking Volkswagen official indicted in the government's three-year probe.

The automaker in 2015 admitted it had installed software designed to cheat U.S. emissions standards in around half a million diesel cars sold in the U.S. between 2009 and 2015.

The computer program would detect when the car was undergoing emissions evaluations and decrease its nitrogen oxide emissions to comply with American standards. When the software recognized the car was on the road, however, it would allow emissions up to 40 times higher than standards permit.

The company agreed to pay $4.3 billion in criminal and civil fines, and settled with consumers for $15 billion.

According to the Winterkorn indictment unsealed today, the ex-CEO presided over the whole operation, including a "damage table meeting," in which employees outlined exactly how Volkswagen was deceiving U.S. regulators. Instead of ordering his subordinates to disclose the defeat device, Winterkorn instead allegedly "approved the continued concealment of the cheating software." the indictment says.

PHOTO: Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn attends the companys annual press conference, March 13, 2014, in Wolfsburg, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn attends the company's annual press conference, March 13, 2014, in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Winterkorn, then 68, resigned in 2015, just days after news of the scheme broke, saying in a statement "I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group ... As CEO I accept responsibility for the irregularities that have been found in diesel engines and have therefore requested the Supervisory Board to agree on terminating my function as CEO of the Volkswagen Group. I am doing this in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrongdoing on my part."

He's just the latest in a string of employees felled by the government probe. Two former VW engineers, Oliver Schmidt and James Liang, pleaded guilty and are serving time in prison. Five additional defendants were indicted last January, but like Winterkorn, are believed to be in Germany, which does not extradite its citizens to countries outside the E.U.

“If you try to deceive the United States, then you will pay a heavy price,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed in a statement. “The indictment unsealed today alleges that Volkswagen’s scheme to cheat its legal requirements went all the way to the top of the company."

“We are reviewing the allegations and will take appropriate action,” an attorney for Winterkorn told ABC News.

Volkswagen did not immediately respond to ABC News request for comment.