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Washington — Republican lawmakers on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee are calling for Congress to investigate what they call "widespread, brazen lawbreaking" at the United Auto Workers, which is in the midst of a strike against General Motors Co. 

Democrats, who control the U.S. House, are unlikely to heed the GOP's call for a congressional investigation, but the request for an additional probe into the union's deepening corruption scandal could put them in a bind. Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates have been careful to stand alongside UAW rank-and-file members during the strike while largely avoiding comment on the union and its leadership.

Eager to show they are standing with UAW-GM members, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, both Democrats, joined picket lines on Monday to march with union members. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, marched with striking GM workers Thursday. 

The UAW is mired in a corruption scandal that has produced nine convictions, and last week led to charges against Region 5 Director Vance Pearson. The federal investigation has implicated UAW President Gary Jones and his predecessor, Dennis Williams. Investigators allege the two are part of a multi-year conspiracy that involves misusing member dues and squandering them on poolside villa rentals in Palm Springs, booze, cigars, more than 100 rounds of golf and spending sprees at pro shops.

In a letter to the top-ranking Democrats on the Democratic-controlled U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, and his colleague U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., wrote that the panel should "hold a public hearing on the ongoing federal investigation of the United Auto Workers union for violating the Labor Management Relations Act."

They said it was "essential the committee confront the widespread, brazen lawbreaking by union leaders who purport to represent nearly 150,000 American autoworkers but have betrayed their trust in favor of self-enrichment."

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Walberg, a senior Republican on the panel, said he hasn’t yet received a response to his letter. A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“It will be up to Bobby. I think he understands our position on it — which is not anti-union, but we expect union leadership to be upstanding and doing things in the best interest of the rank and file, especially during strike time,” said Walberg, the top Republican on the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions.

While the federal probe is ongoing, Walberg said “we have a responsibility as well to look at what’s taking place." He would like to start with a committee hearing to promote transparency around the issue before deciding whether the matter warrants a full-blown committee investigation.

“I’d certainly like to discuss that with Bobby,” Walberg said.

But following the high-profile raids on the homes of the current and former UAW presidents, “right now, I need to be assured that the leadership is looking out for the rank and file,” he added. “Our rank and file better be protected against an abuse of power by leadership.”

Walberg is a former steelworker who was at one time represented by the United Steelworkers. He worked at the U.S. Steel South Works on the south side of Chicago for a short time in college, he said.

“I’m hoping it’s just a few in the union who have gone astray,” he said. “I expect when a union worker or employee pays dues, it shouldn’t be used on golf trips or outings or other things that shouldn’t be paid for with union funds.”

Walberg said he’s concerned that the UAW-GM strike, entering its fifth day Friday, is a legal one and not being used as a “smoke screen” to distract from the ongoing corruption scandal: “I’m not saying that is what’s happening, but it is a concern.”

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Walberg and Foxx said in their letter: "Since 2017, federal investigators have uncovered more than a decade of rampant corruption among the senior ranks of the UAW, which has included money laundering, tax fraud, bribery, and embezzling workers’ hard-earned union dues for lavish personal expenses."

Brian Rothenberg, a UAW spokesman, said in a statement: "The UAW and its membership are focused on taking care of GM and Aramark members to make sure they have quality health care insurance, as well as adequate pay and benefits.

"GM’s decision to cut access to health insurance for 48,000 members makes this an urgent issue for autoworkers right now," he said, avoiding calls for congressional investigation of the UAW's leadership. "That is where all of our focus continues to be — on our members.”

Everything you need to know about the UAW strike and corruption scandal

Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who studies labor issues, said it would be rare for Congress to get involved in a union corruption probe while there is still an active investigation being conducted by the FBI. 

"I suspect what the Republicans are after is a bit of political theater versus helping the investigation in any way," he said, noting that majority Democrats on the panel are unlikely to heed calls for an additional probe by lawmakers. "If they got any satisfaction in asking for it, that may be all they get, because it's unlikely, and I think they know that." 

Federal investigations of union corruption are not unprecedented, even if Congress is typically reluctant to get involved. Thirty years ago, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters settled a civil racketeering lawsuit to keep mob influence out of the 1.4 million-member union.

The suit alleged the Teamsters had made a "devil's pact" with organized crime and was dominated by the Mafia. The federal government gained control of the Teamsters by way of a consent decree settling racketeering and corruption charges that federal officials brought against Teamsters officials.

The government essentially oversaw every penny the Teamsters spent for 25 years. A 2015 agreement moved to phase out government oversight over a five-year period. Experts note that a quarter-century of government oversight, while attempting to sever Teamster ties to the Mafia, drastically altered the union by establishing new election practices, among other things.

The case against the Teamsters was brought despite pressure from Congress in 1988. It resulted in the removal of more than 200 Teamsters officers in the first three years of the consent decree, including 50 local union presidents, according to the 2012 book "Breaking the Devil's Pact: The Battle to Free the Teamsters from the Mob" by James Jacobs and Kerry Cooperman.

Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, noted the Teamsters case was "orders of magnitude different" from the current UAW probe. The Teamsters case "involved millions of dollars and involved the mob."

"There have been very large corruption scandals on occasion, but those have tended to involve many actors and millions of dollars," he said, noting that three of the people who have faced charges in the UAW scandal so far have been Fiat Chrysler employees.

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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