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St. Louis — When United Auto Workers Region 5 Director Jim Wells died suddenly in 2012, the union’s retired president, Ron Gettelfinger, traveled to Missouri to attend the funeral.

He was not welcome, say three sources familiar with the situation, turned away by the Wells family and some of its supporters. It was an unambiguous public rebuke intended to deliver payback for an internecine disagreement that could not be forgiven.

Eight years earlier, the U.S. Department of Labor launched an investigation of Region 5 over allegations its leaders had tried to circumvent campaign finance laws to support the reelection of incumbent Gov. Bob Holden. According to several sources familiar with the situation, Wells asked Gettelfinger to intervene. He refused.

More: Driven by greed: How cozy alliance of FCA, union leaders fueled decade of corruption

Gettelfinger retired in 2010 after two terms leading the union amid a fraught period marked by federal bailouts and concessions in bankruptcy. An Indiana native with deep roots in Kentucky, Gettelfinger possessed a deep command of the union's complex contracts, an innate BS detector and little appetite for the drinking, smoking and carousing common in the upper reaches of the union's leadership.

As Gettelfinger settled into retirement, legal troubles in Region 5 deepened, a federal crackdown on union corruption shows — first under Wells and later under his deputy, Gary Jones, who would head the union’s 17-state region until being named UAW president last year. Alleged embezzlement and theft of member dues became so endemic, so much a target of federal investigators, that union President Rory Gamble is moving to disband the region and split its territory between regional offices in suburban Chicago and Nashville, Tennessee.

Still, the offices of the UAW's largest region, stretching from Missouri to California, sit between a church and day care, directly across from busy Interstate 270. The modern-style headquarters has a smoothed bright cream finish, a stark contrast to its darkly tinted windows and a high brick wall surrounding the back and sides of the building.

The office was the home of Wells, the Region 5 director until his death in the early morning hours of Sept. 27, 2012. He ruled his patch like an old-time union boss, associates and industry sources say, self-important and demanding, crude and confrontational — and adept at managing myriad streams of revenue passing through the region's books, much of it collected from members.

In 2010, the former auto worker was elected to his fifth term overseeing the UAW's 17-state region. His empire covered members in the auto assembly, auto parts, aerospace and beverage container industries, enabling him to exert considerable leverage over Detroit automakers operating there.

Being the UAW's largest geographic region, Wells controlled a large pot of money derived from taxes withheld from worker paychecks. In the last five years, more than $3.6 million has flowed into that pot. And as early as 2010, prosecutors say, Wells was raiding it.

The allegation is contained in a criminal filing against another Region 5 official, Edward "Nick" Robinson. Wells is not identified by name. Instead, federal prosecutors refer to a "UAW Official E," who two sources familiar with the details identify as Wells.

"UAW Official E" was a senior UAW officer until 2012, according to the court filing. That's the year Wells, then 66, died. "UAW Official E" and Robinson were part of a broader alleged conspiracy that involved at least six people stealing member dues and spending more than $1.5 million on personal luxuries.

Those luxuries included private poolside villas in Palm Springs, California, and Missouri. They included cigars and expensive meals, liquor and golf, new clothes from nearby pro shops and visits to the San Diego Zoo.

Part of the conspiracy involved stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in member dues "to further fuel the lavish lifestyles to which these officials became accustomed," Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Gardey and Steve Cares wrote in a court filing charging Robinson with embezzlement and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

Wells was an outdoorsman, a hunter, a fisherman and a gambler — everything from dominoes to the dollar slots at Harrah's New Orleans casino. A mentor of Gary Jones, Wells is accused of embezzling money from member paychecks by having Robinson divert money from the fund.

Wells’ daughter, Traci Seely, declined comment. His two other adult daughters did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The St. Louis skim continued after Wells died and was replaced by his deputy, Gary Jones, court records say. His Region 5 deputy, Vance Pearson, has been charged with embezzlement of union funds, mail and wire fraud, and money laundering. Jones also is implicated in a scheme with Robinson, president of Region 5’s UAW community action program council, to take member dues given through the union’s community action program.

Since 2010, Robinson cashed as much as $700,000 in checks from the UAW council and split the money with Jones, according to the government. Robinson is charged with conspiracy to embezzle union funds and conspiracy to defraud the United States, felonies punishable by up to five years in federal prison.

Jones is not identified by name in federal court records and has not been charged. Instead, prosecutors refer to "UAW Official A," who sources said is Jones. Robinson embezzled as much as $700,000 in member dues and split the money with "UAW Official A," according to the government.

Jones served as Region 5 director from 2012 until he was elected president of the UAW in summer 2018. A product of the St. Louis region who's known to open meetings with a prayer, Jones was considered a fresh face at Solidarity House, untainted by scandal and disconnected from the culture of what one local president called "liquor and side chicks" in an interview with The Detroit News.

Former UAW local leaders in Region 5 recall Jones as a distant leader who had local leaders handle problems through representatives at the region's satellite offices. He always had his crew, particularly Pearson and Robinson, at his side.

Pearson, Robinson and Danny Trull, one of Jones' top deputies, were all involved with Jones' charity, 5 Game Changers, according to state of Missouri business records. The News reported in August that federal agents are looking at the charity, but it has not been mentioned in court filings to date. Jones dissolved the charity in March 2018 before he became president of the union in June 2018. 

Trull has not been charged. The News previously reported that he is one among several UAW officials working with investigators on the case against Jones.

“Wherever Gary Jones was his cronies went … it was like chickens following their daddy,” said Tony Thomas, former voluntary community action program chairman of Local 276 in Arlington, Texas. He and others from Local 276 questioned the need to host golf tournaments to raise money for Jones' charity after it was established in 2014. 

The former president of Local 276, Johnny Pruitte, wearied at having to host a golf tournament for the charity. He'd done some research on it, he said, and "just had a feeling something wasn't right."

In an effort to win Pruitte's backing, Jones promised the local president half the pot of money raised at the Local 276 5 Game Changers golf tournament. And the local could give the proceeds to a charity of its choice.

In May 2015 at a Region 5 V-CAP conference in San Antonio, Pruitte recalls Jones pulled him off to the side to discuss his concerns about 5 Game Changers: "'Johnny, I am a certified CPA,'" Jones told Pruitte. "'I am not going to set something up that’s wrong.'"

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

rsnell@detroitnews.com

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall

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