Audi CEO Rupert Stadler speaks during the company's annual news conference in Ingolstadt, Germany, in this March 15 2018 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/MICHAEL DALDER
Audi CEO Rupert Stadler speaks during the company's annual news conference in Ingolstadt, Germany, in this March 15 2018 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/MICHAEL DALDER

Frankfurt am Main — Former Audi CEO Rupert Stadler could become the first car boss to stand trial in Germany over the “dieselgate” emissions cheating scandal, four years and tens of billions of euros after parent company Volkswagen first admitted to the scheme.

Munich prosecutors said on Wednesday they had charged Stadler and three others with “fraud, falsifying certifications and illegal advertising”, lining them up for an as-yet unscheduled hearing before a specialist court for economic crimes.

The move places Stadler at the same stage of criminal proceedings as former VW CEO Martin Winterkorn, who stepped down after the mass fraud affecting 11-million vehicles worldwide was uncovered in September 2015.

Winterkorn was charged with serious fraud, unfair competition and breach of trust in April by prosecutors in Brunswick.

It will now be up to judges in the two cities, close to Audi HQ in Ingolstadt and VW’s enormous Wolfsburg factory, to decide when the executives’ cases are heard.

Billions in fines

The charges against 56-year-old Stadler are linked to more than 434,000 VW, Audi and Porsche cars fitted with “defeat devices” to fool regulators’ emissions tests.

Such software, applied to diesel-fuelled cars, allows the vehicles to detect when they are being tested in the lab and squeeze output of harmful gases such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) far below actual levels released on the road.

Stadler was CEO at Audi for 11 years, becoming the first car industry boss arrested over the far-reaching scandal in June 2018. Investigators said the detention was over suspicions he was trying to influence witnesses, but ultimately released him in October.

A career Audi man, he joined the firm in 1990 and became CEO in 2007, before being replaced at the top by Dutchman Bram Schot following his arrest.

Prosecutors say Stadler knowingly continued selling cheating vehicles from Audi, especially in Europe and the US, after September 2015 when the fraud became public.

Porsche and VW cars fitted with cheating engines from the high-end subsidiary also continued rolling out of dealerships.

“Until the accusations have been cleared up, all suspects enjoy the presumption of innocence,” Audi said on Wednesday.

The company added that it is “cooperating fully with the investigating authorities”.

Audi paid an €800m fine to close criminal investigations into the company itself in 2018, matched by €1bn paid by Volkswagen and €535m from Porsche.

Sprawling 12-brand group Volkswagen has so far been hit with more than €30bn in costs relating to dieselgate, much of it for fines, buybacks and compensation payouts in the US.

Dozens of individuals remain under investigation in Germany, including former CEO Matthias Mueller, who took over from Winterkorn, present boss Herbert Diess and supervisory board chair Dieter Poetsch.

Shareholders are pursuing the company in court for up to €9bn in compensation for their losses in the days after the scandal went public, while more than 410,000 German car owners are demanding compensation in a first-of-its-kind mass action lawsuit in Germany.

Beyond the legal consequences, the scandal has jolted the car industry, Germany’s largest with about 800,000 employees.

Other manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler have found themselves accused of cheating.

VW is making an enormous shift to electric vehicles in response to dieselgate and tougher EU carbon emissions rules set to bite from 2020.

German politics was for much of 2018 consumed with debate over whether and how to ban the most polluting diesel vehicles from city centres, in a battle between environmentalist activists and elected officials often accused of being too cosy with the carmakers.