DETROIT (AP) – Federal attorneys expanded criminal investigation on Tuesday by charging a Fiat Chrysler engineer with rigging pollution tests on more than 100,000 diesel pickups and SUVs sold in the United States, the first indictment since a wave of similar cases against Volkswagen and its executives.
The alleged scheme of Emanuele Palma is not as big as the Volkswagen emissions scandal, which involved nearly 600,000 vehicles. But the charges show investigators are still in the case, months after Fiat Chrysler agreed to a $ 650 million civil settlement and said it would fix Jeep Grand Cherokees and Ram 1500 trucks with "EcoDiesel" engines made between 2014 and 2016.
Palma is charged with conspiracy, violation of federal law on clean air, conduit fraud, and the issuance of false statements.
The prosecutors claim that he manipulated software to make the pollution control system work differently during government testing than during normal driving. One expert said that mention of the conspirators in Palma's indictment suggests that several may be charged.
"As a result of his technical decisions, his management, his lies, these vehicles on the road released dramatically higher environmental contaminants than permitted by law," United States Assistant Attorney Timothy Wyse told a U.S. District Court judge in Detroit.
United States Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Stafford rejected Wye's request that Palma, a native of Italy who still works at Fiat Chrysler, wear an electronic surveillance device while on bond.
"We intend to defend this very forcefully," defense attorney Ken Mogill said.
Fiat Chrysler issued a brief statement saying it continues to cooperate with investigators. The carmaker agreed in January to settle a deal with US and California regulators, although the deal did not resolve any potential criminal liability.
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"We acknowledge that this has created uncertainty for our customers and we believe this resolution will uphold the trust us, "said Mark Chernoby, the company's chief of North American security and regulatory compliance, at that time.  When accusations against Fiat Chrysler first appeared in 2017, then-CEO Sergio Marchionne said it was unfair to even try to make a comparison with Volkswagen.
"There is not a guy in this house who would even remotely try to try something as stupid as that," he said of cheating. "And if I found such a guy, I would have hung him on a door."
Marchionne died in July 2018. The case against Palma shows that the government has a different view.
"Whether people were disobedient leadership or management knew about it and lied," said Bruce Huber, a professor at Notre Dame law school. "Either way, it's not going to reflect positively on the corporate culture or leadership impact."
In 2017, Volkswagen pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $ 4.3 billion in US civil and criminal penalties on top of billions more to buy back cars. Two people were sent to prison. Charges are being filed in Detroit against others at VW or Audi, but they are in Germany and out of reach of US authorities.
Meanwhile, Germany's stockholders on Tuesday accuse VW's CEO, chairman and former CEO of equity manipulation of not telling investors in 2015 that the scandal was about to break.
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