DETROIT (CN) – Oliver Schmidt, a former executive and key conspirator in the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, was sentenced Wednesday in Michigan federal court to seven years in prison and fined $400,000.
U.S. District Judge Sean Cox handed down the sentence after a two-hour hearing where lawyers for Schmidt, 48, tried in vain to downplay his role in one of the biggest corporate scandals in American history.
“You were a significant player,” Judge Cox said at the end of the sentencing when he imposed the maximum amount of prison time.
Schmidt, a German citizen, had pleaded guilty in August to violating the Clean Air Act and conspiracy to defraud the United States.
Dressed in a red prison jumpsuit and shackles, Schmidt wore black rimmed glasses and spoke quietly with a heavy German accent during the hearing. He admitted he did not disclose the existence of emissions-cheating devices in VW diesel engines in meetings with investigators.
Former engineer James Liang, who recently pleaded guilty to defrauding the U.S. government, was used by Schmidt’s lawyers to suggest Schmidt was only involved in the scandal towards the tail end, not almost a decade, as others have been accused of.
More than 500,000 VW vehicles were part of the company’s scheme to skirt U.S. pollution rules by using software to suppress nitrogen oxide emissions during testing, but Schmidt’s lawyers said his influence only affected 8,757 cars.
However, arguments by government lawyers painted a picture of a man who saw an opportunity to impress his bosses and climb the corporate ladder.
They said Schmidt was one of the first to learn about the emissions-cheating devices and met with Volkswagen executives, including then-Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn to craft a cover-up strategy.
When he was allowed to speak, Schmidt’s voice cracked as he thanked his wife for her support. He spoke of sleepless nights and said he was “no longer in denial” about his role in the fraud.
“Upon learning of Volkswagen’s massive scheme to defraud and mislead U.S. consumers and regulators, Oliver Schmidt chose to join the conspiracy and deceive U.S. regulators,” Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan said in a statement. “This case, along with the prior prosecution of the company and another Volkswagen engineer, further demonstrate the Criminal Division’s unwavering commitment to hold both corporations and individuals accountable for their wrongdoing.”
Volkswagen AG has racked up more than $15 billion in fines over the scandal and has pledged to develop a line of electric-powered vehicles in the future. The company pleaded guilty in March to conspiracy and obstruction of justice related to the emissions-cheating scheme.