Oliver Schmidt’s nightmare began on 7 January. The FBI caught the Volkswagen manager before returning to Germany, the annual winter holiday in Florida ended with clicking handcuffs at the airport of Miami. Since then the long-time VW employee is in custody and feels the full severity of the US justice. Now he finally says.
Schmidt is the central figure in the criminal investigation of the exhaust gas scandal – at least in the USA, where, apart from him, only one engineer who quickly concluded a leniency deal was hired.
Schmidt has now also made a debt confession. The German, who was charged with environmental issues in the US until March 2015 in a leading VW function, admitted on Friday in front of the competent US court in Detroit that he had been part of a conspiracy against fraud and violation of US environmental laws.
Through the confession, Schmidt’s potential punishment drops considerably. While his colleague, who had been the first VW employee in the Diesel affair unpacked about a year ago, had been hoping for mildness from the outset, Schmidt hitherto threatened the maximum penalty.’
The Justice Department had initially opened “Case 20394, the United States of America against Oliver Schmidt”, with eleven accusations. In the case of a conviction, this would have meant an imprisonment of 169 years. Nevertheless, Schmidt pleaded innocent for months.
Escape risk higher than 1.6 million dollars
Only two weeks ago, his lawyers had informed the competent judge Sean Cox that her client was a lawyer. Previously, they were not only cut-off with security applications, but had even had problems to provide Schmidt with U-custody with everyday things such as glasses or medication.
Despite the offer to deposit 1.6 million dollars as a security, and a few letters of recommendation from family and friends, Cox was too big to get Schmidt to go free.
The process will no longer come – so Schmidt loses the chance to defend himself in court and to win an acquittal in case of success. His deal with the US authorities, however, also reduces the risk of a very long prison sentence.
The majority of the charges were dropped in return for Schmidt’s confession. However, the allegations of complicity persist in fraud and deliberate violation of the Air Pollution Law, which still threatens a term of imprisonment of up to seven years. In the case of the fines, the official maximum is now at a total of 500,000 dollars, but according to its agreement with the US authorities Schmidt could succeed to press the fine between 40,000 and 400,000 dollars. The verdict is to be passed on 6 December, until then he has to remain in custody.
Which penalty Schmidt ultimately receives should also depend decisively on the extent to which he is prepared to cooperate with the investigators. Even if the exhaust gas scandal for VW after several billion-strong comparisons with plaintiffs on corporate level in the US is largely completed, the local justice there has not given up the search for guilty executives. Only last month the now eighth criminal complaint was published – this time against an ex-manager of the VW subsidiary Audi.
The problem with the US authorities, however, is that most of the accused are likely to reside in Germany, from where at least at the earliest they are not threatened with extradition. On the list of the US investigators now stands significantly larger names than those of Schmidt – for instance the former development committee Heinz-Jakob Neußer.
If the US judiciary otherwise has everything as a possible pullers in sight, is difficult to estimate. The investigations are usually not made public until the prosecution comes. One thing is certain: from the point of view of criminal law, the diesel thriller is by no means over.