Mr. Schmidt’s arrest in January, more than a year after the scandal erupted, was something a fluke. He had come to the United States from Germany for a vacation with his wife and was seized as he waited for a departing flight in Miami. Why he risked arrest by traveling to the United States remains a mystery.
Mr. Schmidt, a fluent English speaker, had been a Volkswagen employee since 1997 and was named general manager of the company’s engineering and environmental office in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 2013. He was responsible for the automaker’s relations with the federal and California regulatory agencies that initially pursued the emissions-cheating case.
The Justice Department said in its sentencing memorandum that Mr. Schmidt was a key participant in the decision to conceal the scheme from federal regulators in the United States.
“The defendant has a leadership role within VW,” federal officials said. “As a consequence of that role, he was literally in the room for important decisions during the height of the criminal scheme.”
Prosecutors have also asserted that Mr. Schmidt provided false information to federal agents after the Environmental Protection Agency uncovered in fall 2015 the “defeat devices” that Volkswagen used to circumvent pollution rules.
Mr. Schmidt has played down his role in the development of the devices and in the company’s efforts to cover up its actions and obstruct federal investigators.
In his own sentencing memorandum, Mr. Schmidt sought to limit his sentence to 40 months in prison and a $100,000 fine.
In a letter to the judge, Mr. Schmidt expressed contrition for his role in the cover-up, but said that his loyalty to Volkswagen had led him to be “misused by my own company.” He cited a meeting in 2015 with a senior official at the California Air Resources Board at which he concealed the existence of software that allowed Volkswagen to cheat on emission tests.
“A script, or talking points, I was directed to follow for that meeting was approved by management level supervisors at VW, including a high-ranking in-house lawyer, ” he said in the letter. “Regrettably, I agreed to follow it.”
Mr. Schmidt did not identify any of the Volkswagen superiors who might have pressured him to lie to regulators.
Volkswagen moved to put the scandal behind it in the United States by agreeing this year to plead guilty to felony charges of illegally importing nearly 600,000…