DETROIT, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- A 33-year engineer for Volkswagen pleaded guilty Friday in U.S. district court to conspiring to deceive American regulators and customers as part of the company's massive emissions scheme that was uncovered last year.
VW engineer James Robert Liang made the plea before judge Sean Cox in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in the first criminal case against the German automaker. Liang had been indicted by a grand jury on charges of conspiring to commit fraud.
Liang, a VW engineer since 1983, is cooperating with the U.S. investigation into the scandal and faces a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 penalty for his role in the case.
Last year, it was revealed that Volkswagen equipped about 600,000 diesel-powered vehicles in the United States with a "defeat device" -- software that kept the automobile's exhaust level at legal limits during testing, but allowed it to go out of range while on the road.
In some cases, the affected vehicles emitted nitrogen oxide levels up to 40 times the legal limit, regulators have said.
Liang, 62, a VW engineer of diesel competence, is one of the company's employees who developed the defeat device. Friday, he pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government to commit wire fraud.
"I knew that VW did not disclose the defeat device to regulators in order to get certification," Liang said in open court Friday, where he also admitted that he and co-workers lied to state and federal regulators in the case.
The engineer said he was also involved in a 2014 recall by VW that intended to update the cars' software and cover up the scheme.
Liang had also been indicted for violating the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1963 -- a charge that carries a maximum sentence of two years and another quarter-million-dollar fine -- but wasn't required to enter a plea to that charge under a plea agreement with prosecutors.
As part of the deal, prosecutors won't use Liang's criminal conduct against him when he's sentenced on Jan. 11. Not a U.S. citizen, Liang could also be expelled from the United States.
Investigators said the conspiracy ran for about 10 years and affected 11 million vehicles with 2.0-liter diesel engines around the world -- all while Volkswagen advertised the cars as environmentally friendly, Liang said.
Other Volkswagen employees involved in the scheme may face similar charges, as the company itself continues to face large-scale financial fallout over the con. The company has agreed to pay more than $16 billion so far to settle the case with VW owners and dealers.
"Volkswagen is continuing to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Justice. We cannot comment on this indictment," a company spokeswoman said Friday.