Winterkorn's charges bring the USA criminal case to the uppermost levels of Volkswagen, which pleaded guilty past year to lying to American environmental regulators about emission control systems. The scheme came undone when a company employee, in response to a regulator's questions, admitted that VW had been using software to cheat on emissions tests.
According to the indictment, Winterkorn was briefed in 2015 about the situation, at which time he allegedly gave the green light to continued concealment of the vehicles' defeat devices, which were used to bypass federal emissions regulations.
"If you try to deceive the United States, then you will pay a heavy price", Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. Winterkorn resigned shortly after the scandal became public.
Martin Winterkorn was indicted on four counts of conspiracy and wire fraud, becoming the most senior VW executive to be charged in connection with the scandal.
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The indictment of Winterkorn is the most recent charge in an ongoing investigation by US criminal authorities into unprecedented emissions cheating by VW.
If extradited from Germany and found guilty, Winterkorn faces a maximum of 65 years in prison if convicted on all charges - 5 years for the conspiracy charge and 20 years per wire fraud charge.
Five additional defendants, including former VW executives and senior managers, were indicted in January 2017, but have not been apprehended.
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