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VW Engineer Pleads Guilty To Conspiracy To Violate U.S. Clean Air Act

A longtime Volkswagen engineer has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges as part of a deal with prosecutors. Here, the turbo diesel injection (TDI) engine of a Volkswagen vehicle is seen.

A veteran Volkswagen employee has pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the carmaker's use of so-called "clean diesel" engines that actually cheated on U.S. emissions tests. Engineer James Robert Liang worked for VW in both Germany and the U.S.

Liang pleaded guilty to criminal charges that he conspired to defraud the U.S., to commit wire fraud, and to violate the Clean Air Act; a grand jury indicted him three months ago, but that document was sealed until today.

As part of the plea deal, Liang faces a mutually agreed-upon sentencing guideline that sets a maximum of five years in prison, according to court records. He also could be forced to pay a fine of up to $250,000.

Liang started working for Volkswagen in 1983; in 2006, he helped design the "EA 189" diesel engine that has been linked to a recall of millions of vehicles worldwide, prosecutors say.

NPR's John Ydstie reports:

"Appearing in U.S. District Court in Detroit, Liang said he was guilty because he had failed to disclose the software that Volkswagen had installed in vehicles to enable them to fraudulently pass emissions tests. Liang told the court he and his colleagues realized the diesel engines would not meet U.S. emissions standards, so they designed software to recognize when the cars were being tested.

"Liang moved to the U.S. in 2008 to help launch VW's so-called 'clean diesel' vehicles. Nearly 600,000 were sold in the U.S. Liang has agreed to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors, suggesting they are pursuing more VW employees."

Liang was indicted in early June; later that month, Volkswagen agreed to pay "up to $10 billion to buy back cars and compensate U.S. vehicle owners in the largest civil settlement in automobile history," in addition to paying nearly $5 billion in environmental reparations, as we reported.

For the past eight years, Liang worked in the U.S. as the Leader of Diesel Competence for Volkswagen's American subsidiary. He attended meetings with the Environmental Protection Agency to discuss certifying VW diesel vehicles for the U.S. market — meetings at which prosecutors say Liang and his co-conspirators "continued to falsely and fraudulently certify" that the cars met emissions standards.

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