White Collar Crime affects employees too. In the recent Volkswagen scandal where the automaker designed ways for their cars to fraudulently “pass” emissions tests, the government is rolling out a new prosecution strategy: going after the employees. The Detroit Free Press recently reported on Volkswagen engineer, James Liang, who plead guilty in U.S. District Court in Detroit to conspiracy to defraud U.S. regulators and Volkswagen customers, wire fraud, and violations of the U.S. Clean Air Act. He is not only the first Volkswagen employee to be convicted of criminal charges in this matter, his conviction is also a warning to all employees that just following company orders can lead to serious criminal consequences.
Mr. Liang, who has worked for Volkswagen since 1983, does not deny his role in designing a “defeat device,” software specifically made to cheat U.S. emissions standards testing processes. But what is really surprising is how early the decision was made at Volkswagen and how long the coconspirators followed company orders to proceed with this illegal action. Liang and others defrauded regulators and customers from at least 2006 to 2015. Volkswagen has already reached a civil settlement with U.S. regulators and the State of California to pay $16.5 billion dollars, along with other settled lawsuits all over the U.S. for over another half billion dollars. But Volkswagen, as a company, is still facing a criminal investigation.
Traditionally, the government’s strategy in this type of white collar crime case would be to pursue a conviction against the company itself, but the government has expanded its focus to also pursue criminal prosecution against employees. Though Mr. Liang faces faces up to five years in prison and fines of $250,000 or more, his sentence can and likely will be reduced based on the information he provides to the government. And the investigation is not limited to current employees as the government is targeting many former ones as well. This is a strategy all employees and companies need to be aware of. Simply following company orders is no defense for committing illegal acts.
If you are concerned that you have potentially committed an illegal act in your duties to a current or former employer, you may be in legal jeopardy and should contact an attorney immediately. Additionally, if you are a business owner and are similarly concerned that, in the course of doing business, your company’s actions may have run afoul of state or federal laws, you should also contact an attorney immediately. Michigan defense attorney and former federal prosecutor John Freeman is available to put his 23 years of experience to work for you today.