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Embattled UAW official meets in secret with feds

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A close aide to UAW President Gary Jones met last week with federal prosecutors who are trying to convince him to plead guilty in a widespread corruption scandal, according to court records.

UAW Region 5 Director Vance Pearson met with prosecutors Nov. 12 in St. Louis "in order to determine whether any pre-indictment resolution could be reached," according to a filing Tuesday signed by Pearson's lawyer and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gardey.

UAW President Gary Jones and Region 5 Director Vance Pearson

Pearson lives in a St. Louis suburb but legal experts who spoke on condition of anonymity said it would be unusual for prosecutors to travel out of state to meet with a defendant instead of holding the meeting in Detroit. The unusual move speaks to Pearson's potential value as a cooperating witness in an ongoing embezzlement investigation targeting Jones, the sources said.

“The government is working to get his cooperation,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. “That would be problematic for Jones because this was one of his closest aides.”

The meeting came two months after Pearson was arrested and charged with embezzlement of union funds, mail and wire fraud, and money laundering. He is accused of teaming with Jones, former UAW President Dennis Williams and others to embezzle more than $1 million in member dues that were spent on luxuries, including private villas, liquor, golf and cigars.

Pearson, 58, was placed on leave after being charged in federal court. His lawyer could not be reached for comment immediately Tuesday.

The secret meeting is the latest revelation to emerge since the government disclosed last month that investigators are armed with evidence that includes bank records, cooperation from top labor leaders and what court records suggest are secret recordings.

The records describe conversations among UAW officials, including Jones and Pearson, earlier this year and directly quote labor leaders talking about destroying evidence and obstructing justice. 

The use of direct quotes is a strong indication investigators obtained audio recordings of Jones, Pearson 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.

Pearson, a Saint Charles, Missouri, resident, served on the board of directors overseeing Jones' charity and succeeded Jones as director of the UAW's largest geographic region. The region covers 17 states and is based in suburban St. Louis.

Pearson's home in suburban St. Louis and office were raided by federal agents Aug. 28 as part of a nationwide search in four states targeting UAW officials, including Jones and Williams.

Jones' lawyer Bruce Maffeo declined comment Tuesday.

Jones and Williams have been implicated, but not charged, in an alleged scheme that authorities say involved the embezzlement of more than $1.5 million in member dues.

In federal documents, Jones and another UAW officer, Edward "Nick" Robinson, are accused of embezzling member dues and splitting the money.

Jones is not identified by name in court records. Instead, the government refers to "UAW Official A," who is Jones, multiple sources have told The News.

Jones went on paid leave Nov. 3, three days after The News linked him to what prosecutors call an embezzlement conspiracy.

Robinson, 72, of St. Louis, president of a regional UAW community action program council, has been charged with conspiracy to embezzle union funds and conspiracy to defraud the United States. He is expected to plead guilty.

The Robinson case escalated the years-long corruption investigation from allegations of labor law violations and bribes to outright thievery by senior UAW officers.

Since 2010, Robinson cashed as much as $700,000 in checks from the UAW council and split the money with Jones, according to court records.

"After Edward N. Robinson obtained the cash, he split the hundreds of thousands in dollars in cash proceeds with UAW Official A...," Gardey and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Cares wrote in a court filing. "Between 2010 and 2017, UAW Official A deposited over $93,000 in cash into one of his personal bank accounts."

During the August raids, investigators seized more than $32,000 cash from Jones' home, according to court records.

Maffeo has called Robinson "a thief who is seeking to lay off onto others his own criminal responsibility."

In court filings, prosecutors quoted a conversation between Pearson and Robinson in July.

Pearson 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.

Twitter: @robertsnellnews.