Even as Volkswagen pleaded guilty to felony charges and agreed to a record $4.3 billion settlement of its 16-month-old diesel emissions scandal in the U.S., the noose of law enforcement has tightened around the automaker's highest executives.
Court filings released last week charging six VW executives with conspiracy to cheat on U.S. diesel emissions standards make clear: Other VW executives are now in investigators' crosshairs.
"We can't put companies in jail, but we can hold their employees responsible and put them in jail," FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told reporters in Washington last week.
"It's now clear that Volkswagen top executives knew about this illegal activity and kept their shareholders and the public in the dark," he added.
Last week, longtime Volkswagen executive Oliver Schmidt -- who at one time was responsible for overseeing U.S. emissions compliance for VW -- was arrested at Miami International Airport as he tried to return to Germany from a family vacation, and he is now being held without bail. His criminal booking photo was blasted across global media.
In Germany, five other midlevel VW executives -- facing criminal indictments in the U.S. and potentially prison -- may never again be able to travel abroad without risk of arrest and extradition.
A former VW executive pleaded guilty in September in the U.S. and is actively helping prosecutors build their case in hopes of a reduced sentence.
And the U.S. government is not the only one seeking criminal penalties: In South Korea, another Volkswagen executive was sentenced to 18 months in prison for fabricating documents on emissions and noise-level tests to achieve certification for imported vehicles.
The indictments released by federal law enforcement officials last week paint a chilling story of engine and emissions engineers and executives facing pressure to deliver what they judged to be impossible: a high-performance, "clean diesel" 2.0-liter engine.
It was 2006. The engine would be the "cornerstone" of a new strategy to sell fuel-efficient diesel cars and crossovers in the United States, where VW needed to grow. But when U.S. regulators tightened already stringent nitrogen oxide emissions regulations, the engine team faced the prospect of failure and the collapse of the automaker's entire strategy.
Instead, investigators allege, they collectively chose a darker path, one that would keep the strategy going -- as long as they didn't get caught.
Instead of fixing the issue properly and legally, they developed and installed software that detected whether the vehicle was undergoing emissions testing on a dynamometer. When the vehicle was undergoing testing, it would act within the law; when it was in the real world, it would pollute at a level up to 40 times higher than was allowed.
The deception that began in 2006 would continue undetected for eight years. But ultimately, it would rock one of the world's largest automakers to its core and cost the company more than $23 billion in fines, recalls and buybacks in the U.S. and Canada.
More importantly, the deception now endangers the freedom of all those who had kept it secret over the years.
It also may be why top VW executives skipped their trip to the U.S. last week for the annual Detroit auto show.