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Detroit — Former United Auto Workers official Mike Grimes pocketed more than $1.5 million in kickbacks from a union vendor because he was struggling with the death of his first wife and trying to make his new family happy with material possessions, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Grimes should only spend one year and a day in federal prison for corruption — half the time sought by prosecutors — because he cooperated with an ongoing investigation and already has been punished by losing his reputation and ill-gotten gains, defense lawyer Michael Manley wrote.

The lawyer portrayed Grimes as a blue-collar man, a farm boy from the Flint area who rose to the top echelon of the UAW after starting as a janitor. The portrait clashed with one offered by prosecutors Tuesday that described Grimes as a greedy shakedown artist who amassed a multimillion dollar real estate empire by demanding bribes and kickbacks — including $10,000 for a relative's cosmetic surgery.

“He never lived the high life. Michael tried to make himself, his new wife and children happy with material things,” Manley wrote. “Items he could not afford on a blue-collar salary.”

Federal filings show Grimes was paid more than $150,000 a year in his union position.

“Michael thought he could ‘buy away his pain,’” Manley wrote. "He could replace his children's tears with smiles with a lakefront home, cars, boats, trips and other material things. Michael's actions were plain wrong and the ill-gotten proceeds were fool's gold."

Grimes, a top aide to UAW vice presidents Joe Ashton and Cindy Estrada, is awaiting a prison sentence Feb. 19 after being convicted of forcing union vendors to pay bribes and kickbacks.

Grimes has had a difficult life, his lawyer said.

His first wife died of cancer at age 31, leaving him with three children. He remarried and had another child while juggling the demands of his UAW career.

"He was not often able to be present even as his wife and his son were both struggling with substance abuse issues," Manley wrote. "Michael wanted to protect them by providing them with a life that he thought they deserved."

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Manley said greed, selfishness, avarice, excess and power might explain why Grimes demanded kickbacks and bribes from UAW vendors.

"However, we would ask the court to consider other alternatives like despair, grief, love and insecurity," Manley wrote. "Once a respected labor leader, he is now disgraced and shamed. The union he gave his life to initiated charges to have him expelled. Michael resigned as a member of the union he so dearly loved..."

Grimes pleaded guilty in September to wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering.

"Michael has lost his reputation, respect from union membership and his community but more importantly he brought more pain to his family by his deeds and the ultimate punishment he faces before this court," Manley wrote.

Though sentencing guidelines call for almost five years in prison, prosecutors are recommending less time behind bars because Grimes cooperated with an ongoing investigation.

The extent of his cooperation is not detailed in court filings. 

The years-long investigation into corruption within the UAW has led to charges against 13 people, a dozen convictions and revealed that union leaders embezzled money from worker paychecks, schemed with auto executives and shook down union contractors.

That group includes Edward Nick Robinson, a close associate of former UAW President Gary Jones. 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.

Robinson is scheduled to plead guilty March 2, according to a federal court notice Wednesday.

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Jones, meanwhile, and retired UAW President Dennis Williams have not been charged with wrongdoing but prosecutors implicated them in a racketeering enterprise that embezzled more than $1.5 million in union funds.

Federal agents also are probing financial ties between new UAW President Rory Gamble, retired vice president Jimmy Settles and one of the union's highest-paid vendors.

The agents are investigating whether UAW leaders received cash kickbacks or bribes in exchange for awarding lucrative contracts to Huntington Woods businessman Jason Gordon to supply union-branded merchandise, sources told The Detroit News last month.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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