Ex-Volkswagen CEO Winterkorn charged in U.S. over diesel scandal

Federal prosecutors in Detroit on Thursday unsealed charges against former Volkswagen Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn, accusing him of conspiring to mislead regulators about the German automaker's diesel emissions cheating.

Volkswagen did not immediately comment

An indictment filed in secret in March was unsealed in U.S. District Court on the same day as Volkswagen's annual meeting in Germany. Winterkorn resigned soon after the scandal over polluting vehicles in the United States became public in September 2015.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that the charges show "Volkswagen’s scheme to cheat its legal requirements went all the way to the top of the company."

Winterkorn is charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, wire fraud and violating the Clean Air Act from at least May 2006 through November 2015 by using illicit software that allowed Volkswagen diesel vehicles to emit excess pollution without detection. 

RELATED: Take a look at Martin Winterkorn through the years:

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Martin Winterkorn, former Volkswagen CEO
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Martin Winterkorn, former Volkswagen CEO
WOLFSBURG, GERMANY - MARCH 13, 2014: In this file photo Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn attends the company's annual press conference on March 13, 2014 in Wolfsburg, Germany. Winterkorn announced on September 22, 2015 that he will not step down following the diesel emissions scandal that Volkswagen has admitted could affect up to 11 million VW cars. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
WOLFSBURG, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 23: Rain clouds are seen over a Volkswagen symbol at the main entrance gate at Volkswagen production plant on September 23, 2015 in Wolfsburg, Germany. Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn and other members of the supervisory board are believed to be meeting inside the headquarters to discuss the Volkswagen Diesel emission scandal, which affects 11 million vehicles worldwide. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)
SONNEFELD, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 23: The dual exhaust pipes on a Volkswagen turbodiesel passenger car are visible below the vehicle on September 23, 2015 in Sonnefeld, Germany. The inner circle of the Volkswagen governing board is meeting today to discuss the current diesel emissions scandal that has already caused the company's stock market value to plummet approximately 30% since Monday. Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn has admitted the company installed software into 11 million of its diesel-powered passenger cars that manipulates emissions results under testing circumstances. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first announced the discovery of the software and is planning to fine Volkswagen up to USD 18 billion.(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
CEO of Volkswagen AG Martin Winterkorn (R) and CEO of Porsche AG Matthias Mueller (C) are seen speaking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) at the 66th IAA auto show in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on September 17, 2015. Angela Merkel called for 'full transparency' from VW in the company's cheating scandal. German auto giant Volkswagen revealed on September 22, 2015 that 11 million diesel cars worldwide are equipped with devices that can cheat pollution tests, a dramatic expansion of a scandal that immediately sent its shares plummeting by another 20 percent. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 30: Chairman of the board of directors of Volkswagen Martin Winterkorn lifts the trophy next to Klaus Mohrs (R), mayor of the city Wolfsburg, during the VfL Wolfsburg Champions party after winning the German DFB Cup Final at Spindler & Klatt on May 30, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)
CEO of German car maker Volkswagen (VW), Martin Winterkorn, attends the shareholders' annual general meeting of VW AG in Hanover, central Germany, on May 5, 2015. German auto giant Volkswagen held its first ordinary shareholders' annual general meeting since a bitter power struggle at the top of the company led to the resignation of VW patriarch Ferdinand Piech as supervisory board head. AFP PHOTO / JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
Martin Winterkorn, chief executive officer of Volkswagen AG (VW), pauses during the re-opening of a VW showroom in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, April 28, 2015. Volkswagen said 11 million vehicles were equipped with diesel engines at the center of a widening scandal over faked pollution controls that will cost the company at least 6.5 billion euros ($7.3 billion). Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Volkswagen initially suggested that only lower level executives knew of the cheating. But the indictment alleges Winterkorn was informed of VW’s diesel emissions cheating in May 2014 and in July 2015 and he agreed with other senior VW executives "to continue to perpetrate the fraud and deceive U.S. regulators," prosecutors said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Detroit said Winterkorn was not in custody. In total, nine people have been charged and two have pleaded guilty in the case. One Italian citizen, a former Audi manager, is in Germany awaiting extradition.

Six of the former Volkswagen executives charged are in Germany and have avoided facing U.S. prosecutors because Germany typically does not extradite its citizens. (Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Grant McCool and Dan Grebler)

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