Three attorneys general investigating Volkswagen's emissions scandal say the plan to cheat pollution tests was an organized plot spanning more than a decade that implicates officials at the top of the company's corporate chain, the New York Times reports.
For the first time, lawsuits from New York, Maryland, and Massachusetts charge Volkswagen's chief executive, Matthias Müller, of being aware of decisions as far back as 2006 not to build Audi cars with equipment needed to meet U.S. air quality standards.
The Times' Jack Ewing and Hiroko Tabuchi report:
Volkswagen, which admitted late last year to equipping 11 million vehicles worldwide with software to cheat emissions tests, has maintained that the deception was limited to a small group of people. The company has said top management was not aware of the cheating software, known as a defeat device.
But the New York civil complaint, drawing on internal Volkswagen documents, emails and witness statements, depicts a corporate culture that allowed a "willful and systematic scheme of cheating." The evidence paints the most detailed picture yet about how the deception unfolded and who was responsible.
The suit includes transcripts of emails between Volkswagen executives as they became aware in 2015 that California regulators would start looking more closely at their emissions tests. One executive who found themselves under scrutiny from lawmakers wrote to colleagues, "Come up with the story, please!"
The company has previously blamed the scandal on low-level technicians.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said during a press conference Tuesday, "The idea that this level of fraud could take place and involve so many people at such high levels of a major international corporation is appalling."
There is a "cunningly cynical fraud at the heart of this scandal," he said.
In New York alone, the scandal makes Volkswagen open to fines of more than $500 million.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey added, "This is an example of a company that not only engaged in deception and fraud on a brazen scale but covered up that deception."
The scandal "reflects a corporate culture that had no regard for the law, no respect for the American people and no regard for the environment or peoples' health," Healey said.