A Volkswagen AG engineer pleaded guilty on Friday to helping the German automaker evade U.S. emission standards, becoming the first person U.S. authorities have charged in their probe.
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James Liang, who has worked for VW since 1983 and was part of a team of engineers who developed a diesel engine, was charged in an indictment made public on Friday with conspiring to commit wire fraud and violating U.S. clean air laws.
The 62-year-old German citizen, who lives in Newbury Park, California, appeared in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Friday and entered into a plea agreement that includes his cooperation with the government in its investigation. The indictment says Liang conspired with current and former VW employees to mislead U.S. regulators about the software that allowed the automaker to circumvent the nation's emission standards.
Liang could face up to five years in prison but could get a much lighter sentence if the government finds he provided substantial assistance.
VW spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan declined to comment on the indictment. "Volkswagen is continuing to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Justice," she said.
The company has already agreed to spend up to $16.5 billion to address environmental, state and owner claims in the United States. It still faces billions in potential fines and must resolve the fate of 85,000 polluting 3.0-liter vehicles.
Reuters reported in August that VW and the Justice Department had held preliminary settlement talks about resolving a criminal probe into the emissions scandal.
Liang was indicted in June, but the indictment was only made public on Friday. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Von Ahn)