A former Volkswagen engineer who helped federal investigators after being linked to the diesel emissions scandal will cool his heels in an American prison.
U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox sentenced James Liang, 63, to a 40-month term today, tacking on a $200,000 fine for his involvement in the automaker’s diesel deception. Liang is the first Volkswagen employee prosecuted for having a role in the conspiracy.
Despite his assistance in the hunt for co-conspirators, it was clear authorities weren’t going to let Liang off the hook.
The engineer has deep roots at the automaker, having joined the Volkswagen team in 1983. Before leaving Germany for the company’s U.S. division in 2008, Liang assisted in developing the defeat device-equipped engines earmarked for North American distribution. The 2.0 and 3.0-liter turbodiesel engines, fitted in roughly half a million U.S. vehicles sold between 2009 and 2015, spewed tailpipe emissions up to 40 times the legal limit.
Until 2015, U.S. environmental regulators were none the wiser. VW engineers ensured the onboard emissions control devices worked only when the cars were undergoing emissions compliance tests.
Liang pleaded guilty in a U.S. District Court last September after being charged in June 2016.
Judge Cox, who called the conspiracy a “serious crime” and a “stunning fraud on the American consumer,” didn’t go easy on the engineer. Prosecutors had recommended a three-year prison term and $20,000 fine, while Liang’s lawyers sought home detention and community service. Liang ended up with more jail time and a much, much larger fine.
Cox made note of Liang’s comfortable pre-scandal lifestyle, which involved a swanky California home and quarter-million-dollar salary, as he handed down the sentence. Liang, he said, “didn’t want to walk away from this lifestyle, which would have been the right thing to do.”
While Liang’s lawyer characterized his client as a victim of “misguided loyalty” who wasn’t the “mastermind” behind the operation, the federal prosecutor disagreed. Liang’s engineering prowess was “pivotal” in concealing the defeat devices, Mark Chutkow argued. He added that prison time sends a strong message to the industry.
While indictments exist against several German nationals, there’s only one other VW employee facing possible jail time in the U.S. at this moment. Oliver Schmidt, VW’s former U.S. emissions compliance boss, pleaded guilty to conspiracy earlier this month. Authorities nabbed Schmidt at a Florida airport earlier this year as the German national made a stopover on his way home from a tropical vacation.