“Volkswagen knew of these problems,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said at a news conference in Washington. “When regulators expressed concerns, Volkswagen obfuscated,” she said. “And they ultimately lied.”
Extracting a guilty plea from a major corporation is a notable feat for an administration that has been accused of allowing companies to buy themselves out of indictments through so-called deferred prosecution deals. The move comes as outgoing members of the Obama administration race to finish major cases before leaving their jobs.
The Volkswagen case is also the first major test of a Justice Department commitment to hold executives more accountable, even as the agency braces for big changes in its top ranks under President-elect Donald J. Trump.
The Justice Department has been criticized for years as being too easy on the banks that caused the financial meltdown and set off a major recession. Though financial institutions paid large fines and settled civil cases, executives mostly avoided personal liability. And large companies have rarely faced criminal charges, a policy that some critics have derisively labeled “too big to jail.”
Moving to address that criticism, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates issued a new policy in September 2015, telling prosecutors to focus from the start of their investigations on prosecuting company officials found to have engaged in wrongdoing. Too often, Ms. Yates said, the Justice Department began with a corporate investigation, negotiated a civil settlement and only at the end of an inquiry asked whether any individuals should be prosecuted.
“This isn’t just a paper policy — I think you’re seeing the results,” Ms. Yates said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “There’s a shift in focus here that is across the board in the department, and it’s starting to bear fruit.”
Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, underscored that point at the news conference with Ms. Lynch.
“This case is a great example of the fact that no corporation is too big, no corporation is too global, and no person is beyond the law,” he said.
The Volkswagen employees charged on Wednesday were Heinz-Jakob Neusser, 56, who oversaw development of the company’s brand; Jens Hadler, 50, who oversaw engine development; Richard Dorenkamp, 68, another supervisor of engine development; Bernd Gottweis, 69, who helped oversee quality management; and Jürgen Peter, 59, who was a liaison between regulatory agencies and the carmaker.
They and Mr. Schmidt were charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, defraud customers and violate the Clean Air Act.
It is unclear whether the five executives named on Wednesday will ever appear in a United States court. If they are in Germany, the country does not normally extradite its citizens.
Even if Germany does not extradite or prosecute them, the charges in the United States would severely limit their ability to travel. The case could also set up a diplomatic tussle between Germany and the coming administration, though Mr. Trump’s stance on the case is far from clear.
Ms. Lynch said she could not speculate on whether Germany would hand over the men. Still, she said: “We’ve always worked very well with our German colleagues.”
Regulators in the United States first began to investigate Volkswagen early in 2014 after a study by West Virginia University showed that its diesel cars polluted far more on the road than during official emissions tests.
Company executives knew that the cars were programmed to recognize when they were being tested and to deliver optimum pollution readings, according to investigators. But rather than admit wrongdoing, Volkswagen representatives provided false and misleading information for more than a year to the California Air Resources Board and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mr. Schmidt was arrested on Saturday at Miami International Airport as he was about to board a flight to Germany. In September, a former Volkswagen engineer who worked for the company in California, James Liang, pleaded guilty to charges that included conspiracy to defraud the federal government and violating the Clean Air Act.
None of the executives charged on Wednesday were members of the Volkswagen management board, although several of them reported directly to the board. The lack of accusations against any top managers could help insulate Volkswagen from lawsuits by shareholders who have accused the company of failing to disclose the risks it faced.
Several of those charged on Wednesday played management roles in the development of the diesel engines that were equipped with so-called defeat devices — software intended to mask excess emissions by cranking up pollution controls whenever a car was being tested on rollers in a lab.
Others have been accused of concocting excuses for the excess emissions and trying to prevent regulators from discovering the truth. Volkswagen also admitted that its employees destroyed emails and other evidence in 2015 as it became clear that regulators would soon learn of the illegal software.
Volkswagen’s board approved the company’s agreement with the government on Wednesday. It still needs the approval of Judge Sean F. Cox of Federal District Court in Detroit.
As part of the settlement, the company will be under probation for three years and will be subject to the oversight of an independent monitor. Volkswagen must also cooperate with investigations into current and former employees.
“Volkswagen deeply regrets the behavior that gave rise to the diesel crisis. Since all of this came to light, we have worked tirelessly to make things right for our affected customers,” said Matthias Müller, chief executive of Volkswagen. “The agreements that we have reached with the U.S. government reflect our determination to address misconduct that went against all of the values Volkswagen holds so dear. They are an important step forward for our company and all our employees.”
One of the key provisions Ms. Yates outlined in 2015 was a requirement that companies seeking leniency from the Justice Department provide prosecutors with information about employee wrongdoing. Defense lawyers criticized the measure, saying it would turn corporate lawyers into arms of the government.
Since Ms. Yates issued the policy, many companies in corporate investigations have begun to create “Yates binders” of evidence to provide to investigators.