On Friday, in Detroit, James Robert Liang, 62, of Newbury Park, California, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the government in a stunning move that will dramatically influence the course of the Volkswagen motors emissions case. Agreeing to cooperate with the investigation in both the United States and Germany, Liang is the first to enter into a plea agreement; and authorities are quite certain that he will not be the last.
“It becomes a chain up the ladder,” explains William Carter, who is a former federal prosecutor in LA who, when practicing, specialized in environmental crimes. “They are sending a very strong signal to all those involved that the train is leaving the station, and if you want to be on it, it’s time to cooperate.”
According to white-collar defense lawyer Jacob Frenkel—who is also a former federal prosecutor—this indictment reveals a “sphere of communication” between Liang and all of the other co-conspirators; and that means everyone involved can probably assume they have been implicated.
Frenkel explains, “Mr. Liang certainly knew enough that the U.S. government has embraced him as its first and certainly a prominent cooperator,” adding that Liang’s cooperation could result in little- to no- jail time. For reference sake, sentencing guidelines for prosecution in a case like this would be for a prison term of up to 5 years and as much a $250,000 fine.
Frenkel also notes that VW is now more likely to give the investigators the names of all perpetrators at the company in order to seek lighter penalties as a company and, hopefully, put this matter to bed as quickly as possible. You may recall that the Environmental Protection Agency found VW automobiles could emit as much as 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide.
This new plea, then, means that the prosecutors can charge both employees and the Volkswagen company as a whole, according to former US Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Section chief David M. Uhlmann, who is now a professor of law at the University of Michigan. He tells, “The open question after today is whether they have the evidence to pursue anybody higher up the corporate chain of command.”
Uhlmann also further cautioned that it extraditing Volkswagen executives may not be easy because Germany does not have the same emissions requirements as the USA.
He explains, “As a general rule, extradition treaties are limited to crimes that can be charged in both countries.”