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Former VW boss Winterkorn indicted in US over ‘dieselgate’ scandal

Former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn has been indicted in the United States over his alleged role in the German auto giant's 'dieselgate' scandal, court papers showed on Thursday.

Former VW boss Winterkorn indicted in US over 'dieselgate' scandal
Martin Winterkorn. Photo: DPA

Winterkorn's indictment brings the US criminal case to the uppermost levels of Volkswagen, which pleaded guilty last year to lying to American environmental regulators about emission control systems.

“If you try to deceive the United States, then you will pay a heavy price,” US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said 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.”

SEE ALSO: What you should know about the 'dieselgate' scandal shaking up Germany's car industry

Winterkorn faces four counts, including conspiracy to defraud the United States and wire fraud.

Prosecutors say Winterkorn knew of the company's emissions cheating as early as May 2014 but decided to continue with the fraud, the Justice Department said in a statement.

In the summer of 2015, months before the scandal broke, Winterkorn chaired a “damage table meeting” at Volkswagen's headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany where engine development staff delivered a presentation on how the company was deceiving US regulators and what consequences the company would face if it were caught, according to the Justice Department.

And following the meeting, Winterkorn authorized the company to continue lying to American authorities.

Winterkorn resigned in September of 2015 following revelations of the company's emissions cheating, in which the company configured as many as 11 million diesel-powered vehicles worldwide, including 600,000 in the United States, to emit up to 40 times the permissible levels of harmful nitrogen oxide but to hide this during testing.

Nine charged, two jailed

A Volkswagen spokesman told AFP the company “continues to cooperate with investigations by the Department of Justice into the conduct of individuals,” but said, “It would not be appropriate to comment on individual cases.”

Eight other individuals have now been charged by US authorities in the scandal. Two VW engineers have been jailed after pleading guilty to participating in the conspiracy.

Winterkorn is charged along with five other Volkswagen executives and employees who were indicted last year, according to court papers. They include senior former engine development and quality managers.

Like Winterkorn, they have not been apprehended and reside in Germany. One former manager of VW's subsidiary Audi AG, Giovanni Pamio, 61, an Italian citizen, has been charged by complaint and currently remains in Germany pending extradition.  

The scandal has so far reportedly cost the auto giant as much as $30 billion in criminal fines, class-action settlements and environmental remediation.

A study published in May of last year found that excess nitrogen oxide from improperly configured diesel vehicles had contributed to about 38,000 premature deaths worldwide in 2015.

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POLLUTION

‘Infringement on air quality’: EU court slams Germany for pollution in cities

The EU's top court ruled on Thursday that Germany continually violated upper limits for nitrogen dioxide, a polluting gas from diesel motors that causes major health problems, over several years.

'Infringement on air quality': EU court slams Germany for pollution in cities
Cars sit in traffic in Stuttgart's Hauptstätter Straße in July 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Germany infringed air quality rules “by systematically and persistently exceeding” the annual nitrogen dioxide limit in 26 out of 89 areas from 2010 to 2016, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said in its ruling.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, referred the matter to the ECJ in 2018 after almost a decade of warnings that went unaddressed.

The decision against Europe’s top economy echoes a ruling targeting France in October 2019 after the commission stepped up its anti-pollution fight in the wake of the so-called “Dieselgate” scandal that erupted in 2015 with revelations about Germany’s Volkswagen.

The motors caught up in the scandal — in which automakers installed
special emission-cheating devices into their car engines — are the main emitters of nitrogen oxides that the European Environment Agency says are responsible for 68,000 premature deaths per year in the EU.

READ ALSO: Five things to know about Germany’s dieselgate scandal

Nitrogen dioxide is toxic and can cause significant respiratory problems as one of the main constituents of traffic-jam smog.

Under EU rules, member countries are required to keep the gas to under 40 micrograms per cubic metre — but that level is often exceeded in many traffic-clogged European cities.

The judgement opens the way to possible sanctions at a later stage. However the air quality throughout much of Germany has improved in the last five years, particularly during the shutdowns in the pandemic.

The environment ministry said that 90 cities exceeded national pollution limits in 2016 — the final year covered by the court ruling. By 2019, the number had fallen to 25 and last year, during the coronavirus outbreak, it was just six.

The case involved 26 areas in Germany, including Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart as well as urban and rural areas in North Rhine-Westphalia, Mainz, Worms/Frankenthal/Ludwigshafen and Koblenz/Neuwied.

“Furthermore, Germany infringed the directive by systematically and
persistently exceeding, during that period, the hourly limit value for NO2 in two of those zones” — the Stuttgart area and the Rhine-Main region.

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