Detroit — A stiffer-than-expected sentence Friday for a “brilliant” Volkswagen engineer who helped perpetuate a $25 billion diesel emission scandal helps atone for the perception that business leaders and executives receive free passes for corporate wrongdoing, legal experts said.
VW engineer James Liang’s 40-month sentence and $200,000 fine for his role in a worldwide scandal that defrauded American consumers could foreshadow tough treatment for seven other executives charged in the scandal, including one awaiting sentencing in December.
The tough sentence from U.S. District Judge Sean Cox makes it more likely VW executives indicted in January will remain in Germany and not be brought to justice, experts said.
“It sends a very strong message to them that they better stay safely in Germany,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. “We haven’t seen many individuals being held responsible for corporate misconduct, so this is one of those rare cases.”
Liang, 63, who helped devise software that cheated emissions tests and lied to government regulators, is the first person sentenced to federal prison in the scandal. He struck a plea deal with prosecutors in September and helped investigators unravel the scandal.
The sentence was surprising considering that prosecutors recommended Liang spend three years in federal prison and pay a $20,000 fine. Defense lawyers wanted Liang sentenced to home confinement and a nominal fine, arguing the 120-pound man was too old and slight to serve time in a federal prison.
“Judge Cox dropped the hammer in a way that I don’t think anyone expected,” Henning said.
The judge faulted Liang for conspiring in a scandal that eroded trust between American consumers and car companies.
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