Alexander Sättele, defense attorney for imprisoned Volkswagen manager Oliver Schmidt, said his client was following instructions from VW’s management in the Dieselgate scandal.
In an exclusive interview, Mr. Sättele told Handelsblatt that Mr. Schmidt has become a symbolic figure in criminal investigations into the scandal and was forced to take responsibility for actions beyond his control.
A court in Detroit last week sentenced Mr. Schmidt to seven years in jail, as well as imposing a fine of $400,000. The former head of VW’s American environment and engineering office pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud, wire fraud and violations of the Clean Air Act. The FBI arrested the 48-year-old VW executive while he was visiting the United States to celebrate his birthday in January.
Mr. Sättele, who is representing Mr. Schmidt in ongoing Dieselgate investigations in Germany, said he was not surprised by the decision of the American court, but felt it was disproportionate and unfairly severe. The sentence imposed was the maximum possible under the terms of Mr. Schmidt’s plea agreement with American prosecutors.
The lawyer denied that Mr. Schmidt had lied to American authorities, or coordinated a cover-up. He acknowledged that Mr. Schmidt had failed to mention the existence of “defeat devices,” which falsified emissions test results for diesel engines, but said this had been done on the instructions of Volkswagen’s management.
Mr. Sättele emphasized that his client was not involved in the actual Dieselgate scheme, but said it would be inappropriate to call him a fall guy for Volkswagen. “However, it is correct to say that in the United States he has become a symbol for the scandal, and has been made to take responsibility for things beyond his control,” he said.
Any appeal against the seven-year sentence must be lodged within the next two weeks. Mr. Sättele said that would be a decision for the defendant’s American lawyers.
“Oliver Schmidt has become a symbol for the Dieselgate scandal, made to take responsibility for things beyond his control.”
As well as his American conviction, Mr. Schmidt is one of almost 40 people in a separate investigation conducted by prosecutors in the German city of Braunschweig, close to Volkswagen’s headquarters in Wolfsburg. Mr. Sättele complained that investigators in that case were failing to share key information with defense lawyers, saying some journalists were better informed on the details of the case than he was.
He said conditions in jail were particularly tough for his client during the 11 months of pretrial detention because he had to deal with language barriers and an unfamiliar legal system. As is customary for pretrial prisoners, Mr. Schmidt was denied access to many facilities and events such as sports, he added.
There was a possibility that Mr. Schmidt could be returned to Germany to serve his sentence, but it was too early to say if defense attorneys would apply for a transfer, he said.
In August, another Volkswagen official, James Liang, was sentenced to 40 months in prison and fined $200,000 after he pleaded guilty to designing the software that allowed diesel-engine cars to cheat on emissions tests.
So far, six Volkswagen officials have been indicted in the United States, with a further seven facing charges in Germany. American authorities are said to have issued international arrest warrants for a number of senior VW managers and engineers based in Germany, but they are unlikely to stand trial in the United States because Germany does not extradite its own citizens.
Mr. Sättele said the role and possible guilt of senior VW executives would be a matter for the Braunschweig prosecutors. Senior figures, including then-CEO Martin Winterkorn and Herbert Diess, current CEO of the core VW brand, deny any knowledge of the scandal prior to September 2015, two months after Mr. Schmidt was interviewed by American authorities.
Recent reports have suggested that Volkswagen may seek to dismiss Mr. Schmidt from employment in the wake of the judgment in the American courts. Mr. Sättele said he was unaware of any moves undertaken in this direction.
VW may not have a watertight case for dismissal, the lawyer said. Although there was a plea agreement, “Mr. Schmidt has not been found guilty according to the standards of German law,” which could complicate any attempt to fire him.
Volker Votsmeier is an investigative reporter with Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org