Feds hint at secret recordings in UAW investigation
Detroit — United Auto Workers President Gary Jones is stepping aside amid mounting pressure from federal corruption investigators armed with evidence that includes bank records, cooperation from top labor leaders and what court records suggest are secret recordings, The Detroit News has learned.
The apparent recordings were revealed by the government Thursday when prosecutors charged UAW official Edward Nick Robinson, a close Jones associate. Two days later, the UAW announced that Jones, who has not been charged with wrongdoing, is taking paid leave from a post that pays more than $200,000.
In federal documents, Robinson and Jones are accused of embezzling as much as $700,000 in member dues and splitting the money, part of what prosecutors called a broader conspiracy that involves stealing an additional $1.5 million in member dues spent on personal luxuries during conferences in California and Missouri.
In charging Robinson, 72, of St. Louis, Missouri, with conspiracy to embezzle union funds and conspiracy to defraud the United States, prosecutors provided an unprecedented view of evidence gathered during a four-year investigation. The Robinson criminal case includes references to what legal experts describe as undercover recordings capturing Jones and others discussing possible crimes.
The criminal case describes three conversations among UAW officials earlier this year and directly quotes labor leaders talking about destroying evidence and obstructing justice. Robinson, who is expected to plead guilty, is the only UAW official who participated in all three conversations directly quoted by prosecutors.
The use of direct quotes is a strong indication investigators obtained audio recordings of Jones and other UAW officers either through a wiretap or a hidden recording device, legal experts told The News. The government has yet to file discovery notices in federal court that would reveal whether prosecutors have evidence obtained through wiretaps or other electronic surveillance.
And unsealed search warrant affidavits that would more fully describe evidence amassed during the four-year UAW investigation are heavily redacted. The case amplifies the potential danger facing Jones as prosecutors portrayed the labor leader as trying to obstruct justice.
Robinson, who was charged on Halloween, is a thief trying to shift blame, Jones' lawyer, Bruce Maffeo, told The News.
"(Thursday's) Halloween surprise rehashed many of the same tired allegations about conference expenditures that were adequately and appropriately reported to the UAW accounting department," Maffeo told The News. "The only new items are allegations by a thief who is seeking to lay off onto others his own criminal responsibility."
Undercover recordings have played pivotal and devastating roles in high-profile corruption cases locally, including an ongoing investigation in Macomb County that has led to the convictions of 22 contractors and public officials. Another recent case includes the May trial of Detroit Metropolitan Airport manager James Warner, who was convicted of receiving more than $5 million in bribes after jurors listened to secretly recorded phone conversations.
“Recordings are usually very powerful evidence for the government because they are unfiltered and honest and prosecutors love them,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. “Essentially you put the defendant on the witness stand by playing the recording, and it makes it very difficult to refute what was said.”
Robinson did not respond to messages seeking comment. It is unclear whether he is cooperating with an ongoing investigation headed by federal agents from the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and Labor Department.
The Robinson criminal case focuses on how UAW leaders, including former President Dennis Williams, spent member dues, including a "per-capita" tax payment withheld from worker paychecks. From 2010 until at least September, Robinson was president of a regional UAW council based in Missouri that is funded with the tax payments.
Robinson stole as much as $700,000 from the pot of money since 2010, prosecutors wrote in a court filing that identifies Robinson's co-conspirator as "UAW Official A." Sources familiar with the investigation have told The News that "UAW Official A" is Jones.
"After Edward N. Robinson obtained the cash, he split the hundreds of thousands in dollars in cash proceeds with UAW Official A...," Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Gardey and Steven Cares wrote in the court filing.
The Robinson criminal case provided new details about a main branch of the investigation targeting Jones, Williams and other senior UAW officers. The filing indicates federal agents have obtained Jones' bank records and tracked cash deposits.
"Between 2010 and 2017, UAW Official A deposited over $93,000 in cash into one of his personal bank accounts," prosecutors wrote.
On Friday, Maffeo said: "Given the close to eight years that cash was deposited, the amount and source are easily explained."
He declined to provide an explanation. Federal agents also searched Jones' home Aug. 28 during a series of nationwide raids and seized more than $32,000.
In January 2019, Jones met with Robinson and UAW regional Director Vance Pearson and tried to obstruct the investigation, prosecutors said.
"UAW Official A promised to provide a sham job to a relative of (Robinson) in order to 'take care of' the relative if Robinson agreed to falsely take sole responsibility for the ... cash embezzlement portion of the conspiracy, thereby attempting to protect UAW Official A from federal criminal prosecution," prosecutors wrote.
UAW Official A and Robinson met again in March and talked about whether the government had obtained documents from the UAW and hotels involved in the embezzlement scheme, prosecutors said.
"UAW Official A told (Robinson) that he wished they 'burned the records,'" prosecutors wrote.
During the same meeting, Jones reiterated he would provide for the financial well-being of one of Robinson's relatives if Robinson took sole responsibility for the cash embezzlement, prosecutors wrote.
"We'll take care of (the relative)," Jones said, according to the court filing. "I told you that we'd take care of it."
Prosecutors also quoted another conversation between Robinson and Pearson in July.
Pearson, who was charged with embezzlement, mail and wire fraud and other crimes in September, told Robinson he would get him a burner phone so UAW officers involved in the conspiracy could talk freely without fear of being recorded by a federal wiretap, according to the criminal filing.
Pearson also told Robinson if he had anything incriminating "at your house, then get rid of it," prosecutors wrote.