New UAW chief moves to restore credibility, forestall government oversight
Detroit — In a meeting Thursday with the United Auto Workers' governing International Executive Board, acting President Rory Gamble is expected to detail public moves to restore confidence in union leadership and to avert a federal takeover of the 84-year-old union.
Three sources familiar with the situation told The Detroit News Wednesday those steps likely would include removing a top lawyer, Niraj Ganatra, who led the internal investigation that failed to uncover alleged wrongdoing by union officials — including embattled President Gary Jones.
"I have no intention of replacing our general counsel, Mr. Ganatra," Gamble said in a text message relayed to The News by one of the union's outside lawyers. On Wednesday, the acting president conducted a series of interviews that did not include The News.
In the meeting Thursday, Gamble is expected to outline structural changes to reassure workers who have weathered a four-year investigation by federal agents into corruption and witnessed the union wage a six-week strike against General Motors Co. amid national contract talks.
The moves also are aimed at staving off a potential government takeover of one of the nation's largest and most powerful unions. The UAW is accused of conspiring in a corruption scandal that has led to criminal charges against 10 people linked to the UAW and three once employed by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, including its former head of labor relations.
"I want you to know that I will not excuse or tolerate any inappropriate actions, period," Gamble wrote this week in an open letter to members. "From this day on, the UAW must not only adhere to the highest standards of conduct, put in place by former leaders like Walter Reuther. We need to exceed them. And that is my first priority."
The probe has produced the conviction of a former vice president, Norwood Jewell, and criminal charges this week against a second retired vice president, Joe Ashton. Court papers also have implicated Jones, identified as "UAW Official A," and former President Dennis Williams, identified as "UAW Official B." Sources familiar with the investigation confirmed to The News that Jones is UAW Official A and Williams is UAW Official B.
The public rhetoric of Gamble — appointed acting president Saturday by a 7-6 vote of the union's executive board — reflects sentiments he has expressed privately. He is aiming to "clean house" to signal to members he is serious about efforts to restore union credibility and quash what authorities call a "culture of corruption" inside the UAW's leadership ranks.
This would not be the first time a UAW president, faced with mounting legal jeopardy for ranking officers, vowed to implement reforms barring self-dealing and instituting strict financial controls. More than two years ago, Williams described himself as "appalled" by behavior that "constitutes a betrayal of trust," and said the "UAW has zero tolerance for corruption or wrongdoing of this kind at any level."
He proposed a "Clean Slate Agenda" aimed at preventing further abuses at the UAW-FCA joint-training center, the corporately funded operation at the heart of earlier convictions in the years-long federal investigation. None of the reforms, however, contemplated subsequent allegations of financial wrong-doing fueled by member dues in Palm Springs, California, the Ozarks in Missouri or in Pennsylvania.
In December 2017, Williams used a year-end media roundtable to say the union had spent "the last several months under a magnifying glass, and rightly so.” He credited the union's own internal investigation, led by Ganatra and an outside law firm. And he said he did not expect any more charges stemming from the probe — all before Jewell and three others were charged and convicted, before Williams and Jones were implicated.
And in March, Jones used the union's quadrennial bargaining convention to declare himself "deeply saddened and irritated that some leaders in this union and some leaders at the auto companies exploited their positions to benefit themselves. It is my responsibility from this day forward to strengthen your trust in your union."
Yet last week Jones and a top aide, Edward "Nick" Robinson of St. Louis, Missouri, were accused by the government of conspiring to embezzle as much as $700,000 in member dues and splitting the money, according to a new criminal filing in the expanding federal case.
"Between 2010 and 2017," assistant U.S. attorneys wrote, "UAW Official A deposited over $93,000 in cash into one of his personal bank accounts. UAW Official A advised (Robinson) that they needed to halt the cash embezzlement portion of the conspiracy because of the ongoing federal criminal investigation of the United Auto Workers union and because of a new UAW position being taken by UAW Official A."
Jones ascended to the presidency of the UAW in June 2018, at the time attributing the emerging corruption to "specific individuals, not institutions like the UAW." He said, "The UAW is absolutely devoted to bettering the lives and job conditions of America’s men and women."