Winterkorn is charged with conspiring with other senior VW executives to make false claims that the automaker's supposed "clean diesel" vehicles complied with U.S. emissions requirements, the U.S. Justice Department announced.
The indictment alleges that Winterkorn conspired with company executives and employees to violate the Clean Air Act and defraud the U.S. and customers living there by falsely claiming that its "clean diesel" vehicles met United States emissions requirements.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Environmental Protection Adminstration chief Scott Pruitt and other senior Trump administration official issued statements criticising VW with the indictment, which marks a rare instance of a chief executive being subjected to criminal prosecution for corporate behavior. "These are serious allegations and we'll prosecute this case to the full extent of the law".
Winterkorn resigned soon after the scandal came to light in September 2015.
Winterkorn became the ninth person charged in connection with the emissions cheating scandal. Two former VW engineers have been jailed...
Winterkorn, 70, was listed for the first time with five other German Volkswagen executives originally charged in 2016, who the government believes are responsible for the company's diesel emissions scandal.
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The US indictment of Mr Winterkorn is likely to be largely symbolic.
As the diesel situation in the United States became increasingly alarming to VW senior management, a meeting was held on July 27, 2015 at VW's headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, according to the Justice Department. They also spelled out the potential consequences of being caught.
The former Volkswagen chief is also under investigation by German authorities.
The indictment alleges that Winterkorn knew of the emissions cheating as far back as May 2014, and that he was informed again of it in July 2015.
Prosecutors say Winterkorn knew of the company's emissions cheating as early as May 2014 but made a decision to continue with the fraud, the Justice Department said in a statement. Less than one month later, on September 3rd 2015, Volkswagen admitted to using defeat devices. The Justice Department also extends its thanks to the Office of the Public Prosecutor in Braunschweig, Germany.