Volkswagen engineer pleads guilty to conspiracy in emissions scandal

A Volkswagen engineer pleaded guilty to helping the German automaker cheat U.S. emission standards tests and defraud U.S. regulators and customers, the Justice Department announced Friday.

Engineer James Robert Liang, 62, is the first person to face criminal charges in connection with the Justice Department’s wide-ranging probe into the company’s manipulation of federal pollution tests.

Liang pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy for his decade-long role in developing and concealing a device that misled regulators and customers about the Volkswagen “clean diesel” vehicles, according to court documents. So-called “defeat devices” were installed on approximately 500,000 VW diesel 2.0 liter vehicles that allowed the automaker to manipulate emissions tests.

Volkswagen sold these vehicles in the U.S. from 2009 to 2015.

Liang agreed to cooperate with authorities in their ongoing investigation as part of a plea deal and could face a maximum of five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000. Liang could receive a lighter sentence if the government determined his assistance to be substantial.

The indictment noted multiple email exchanges involving Liang and other Volkswagen employees. In one email exchange, dated September 2013, an employee told Liang about preparing one of the vehicles for a test, saying in German, “If this goes through without problems, the function is probably truly watertight!”

In July 2015, another employee emailed Liang seeking guidance on how to respond to U.S. regulators, adding, in German, “the key word ‘creativity’ would be helpful here,” according to the indictment.

Court documents also noted that when the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board confronted Liang and his co-conspirators about testing discrepancies, the employees blamed technological and mechanical errors, while knowing the installed “defeat devices” were the source of the problem.

Volkswagen has already agreed to more than $16 billion in separate civil settlements to address environmental, state and owner claims in the United States, Reuters reported.

Liang was indicted under seal on June 1 by a federal grand jury, but the indictment was unsealed Friday. His sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 11.

WATCH: How Volkswagen got caught cheating