The US Department of Justice said the indictment alleges Martin Winterkorn, 70, the former Chairman of the management board of Volkswagen, was informed of the car manufacturer’s diesel emissions cheating in May 2014 and July 2015 and conspired with other senior executives and employees to defraud the government and customers.
It also alleges he violated the Clean Air Act “by making false representations to regulators and the public” about the ability of the company’s supposedly “clean diesel” vehicles to comply with US emissions requirements.
Mr Winterkorn has also been accused of wire fraud in connection with the scheme.
Volkswagen previously pleaded guilty to criminal charges by installing so-called defeat devices in diesel vehicle emissions control systems that were designed to cheat tests – as part of the plea, the company paid a penalty of $2.8 billion (£2bn).
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said: “If you try to deceive the United States, then you will pay a heavy price. The indictment unsealed today alleges that Volkswagen’s scheme to cheat its legal requirements went all the way to the top of the company. These are serious allegations and we will prosecute this case to the fullest extent of the law.”
Mr Winterkorn denies any wrongdoing and previously said he did not know the company was cheating tests until August 2015.