UAW boss accused of embezzlement gives feds big smiles, bear-hugs ahead of guilty plea

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A senior United Auto Workers official accused of helping embezzle more than $1 million in union funds greeted federal prosecutors and agents with big smiles and bear-hugs Monday before he pleaded guilty.

Edward "Nick" Robinson, a close aide to former President Gary Jones, left a private meeting with prosecutors on the first floor of federal court in downtown Detroit and greeted several agents that are part of a team of investigators from the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and Labor Department.

The embrace comes amid questions about whether Robinson is cooperating with the ongoing investigation and if he wore a secret recording device while meeting with Jones and another UAW official last year.

Edward "Nick" Robinson

Robinson, 72, of Kirkwood, Mo., wrapped two agents in a tight embrace while slapping their backs and shaking the hands of three others. 

The warm greeting clashed with the grim allegations contained in a 23-page criminal case against Robinson. He is accused of conspiring with at least six other UAW officials to embezzle more than $1 million since 2010 and spending the money on personal luxuries. Those luxuries included private villas in Palm Springs, Calif., lavish dinners, golf trips and more than $60,000 spent on cigars.

Later Monday, Robinson pleaded guilty to conspiracy to embezzle union funds and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. He is the 13th and final person charged so far to plead guilty to criminal charges in a years-long federal crackdown on corruption within the U.S. auto industry. 

His lawyer, James Martin, declined comment Monday.

Federal oversight of the UAW is an option once government investigators determine the depths of corruption, a move that could cost tens of millions of dollars, led to prolonged government control and involve replacing labor leaders.

His guilty plea comes five months after prosecutors filed a criminal case that elevated the years-long corruption scandal from one involving labor law violations and bribes to outright thievery. The Robinson case includes a failed cover-up, payoffs, labor leaders using burner cell phones and hints at secret recordings of union officers discussing wrongdoing.

UAW presidents Gary Jones, Dennis Williams implicated in federal probe

The guilty plea coincided with a continuing investigation of Jones and his predecessor, retired President Dennis Williams. The probe has led to labor leaders and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles executives convicted of breaking federal labor laws, embezzling union funds and receiving bribes. Jones and Williams have not been charged with any crimes.

UAW President Rory Gamble under federal investigation

Agents also are investigating current UAW President Rory Gamble. Investigators are probing allegations of strip club payoffs and financial ties between Gamble, retired Vice President Jimmy Settles and one of the union's highest-paid vendors, sources told The Detroit News.

The Robinson criminal case filed in October includes references to what legal experts describe as undercover recordings capturing Jones and others discussing possible crimes.

FILE -- Gary Jones listens during officer nominations before he is elected UAW president at  the UAW 37th Constitutional Convention at Cobo Center on June 13, 2018.

The criminal case describes three conversations among UAW officials earlier last year and directly quotes labor leaders talking about destroying evidence and obstructing justice. Robinson is the only UAW official who participated in all three conversations directly quoted by prosecutors.

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.

In January 2019, Jones met with Robinson and UAW regional Director Vance Pearson and tried to obstruct the investigation, prosecutors said.

Vance Pearson is seen leaving federal court Tuesday in downtown Detroit.

"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.

Driven by greed: Alliance of FCA, union leaders fueled decade of corruption

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 pleaded guilty last month for his role in the racketeering enterprise.

Pearson also told Robinson if he had anything incriminating "at your house, then get rid of it," prosecutors wrote. 

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews