Winterkorn was CEO of Volkswagen when the automaker admitted it had cheated USA emissions tests and its cars illegally polluted up to 40 times more than allowed by federal law.
The charges have been filed accusing him of a conspiracy to cover up the Volkswagen Group's emissions cheating between 2006 and 2015 when it was finally uncovered. The executives, including Winterkorn, are reportedly in Germany, where they are protected from extradition to the U.S. An Italian citizen who previously worked for Audi, a division of Volkswagen, is also in Germany.
In total, VW has agreed to spend more than $25 billion in the U.S. to address claims from owners, environmental regulators, states and dealers. "These are serious allegations and we'll prosecute this case to the full extent of the law".
It emerged then that VW had installed the so-called defeat device in 11 million vehicles worldwide.
Winterkorn is charged with conspiring with other senior VW executives to make false claims that the automaker's supposed "clean diesel" vehicles complied with U.S. emissions requirements, the U.S. Justice Department announced.
Winterkorn's charges bring the U.S. criminal case to the uppermost levels of Volkswagen, which pleaded guilty a year ago to lying to American environmental regulators about emission control systems. Winterkorn, the highest-ranking executive charged, was cited for trying to mislead regulators about the cheating.
If extradited from Germany and found guilty, Winterkorn faces a maximum of 65 years in prison if convicted on all charges - 5 years for the conspiracy charge and 20 years per wire fraud charge.
A Volkswagen spokesman told AFP the company "continues to cooperate with investigations by the Department of Justice into the conduct of individuals", but said, "It would not be appropriate to comment on individual cases".