UAW offers unprecedented meeting with feds amid corruption scandal

Robert Snell Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Detroit — In response to public criticism from U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble is offering to meet with federal officials probing union corruption as part of a broader attempt to avoid a government takeover. 

Gamble made the offer Wednesday. And The Detroit News has learned the UAW has hired a prominent New York law firm, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, to provide what the UAW described in a statement as "technical assistance with our ethics and compliance reform efforts" to root out corruption within one of the nation's most prominent unions. 

Legal experts view UAW President Rory Gamble's offer, and the hiring of the New York law firm, as a belated attempt to reform the UAW and to avert a possible Justice Department move to seize control of the union.

The offer is the first time a sitting UAW president has agreed to meet with the head of the Detroit-based U.S. Attorney's Office to discuss potential reforms amid an investigation that has led to criminal charges against Gamble's predecessor, former President Gary Jones, implicated past President Dennis Williams and convicted two former vice presidents.

Legal experts view Gamble's offer, and the hiring of the New York law firm, as a belated attempt to reform the UAW and to avert a possible Justice Department move to seize control of the union through a civil racketeering lawsuit. Gamble's agreement to meet with investigators carries risks considering federal agents are probing ties between Gamble and one of the union's highest-paid vendors as well as whether labor leaders received bribes.

"President Gamble would welcome the opportunity to personally meet with U.S. Attorney Schneider and his team to discuss the investigation and the reform efforts and new ethics programs the UAW has undertaken," UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in a statement to The News. "We look forward to working with the government investigators as we turn the page to a brighter future." 

Schneider welcomed the offer, saying his office and the UAW's legal team have been discussing the possibility of a meeting: "I'd look forward to meeting with him as well," he told The News on Thursday. "And I hope we can arrange that as soon as possible. We want certain reforms."

The UAW is expected to detail as soon as Monday its proposed ethics reforms, its newly appointed ethics officer and the duties of a prospective ombudsman, according to a source familiar with the situation — all efforts to avoid government oversight and to deliver promised reforms that Gamble proposed after becoming president last fall.

"What this shows is the UAW thinks that their best shot of surviving without being taken over is to cooperate and not stonewall," said Erik Gordon, a University of Michigan business professor.

The purpose of the meeting would be to address long-standing corruption within the UAW, Schneider said. One possible reform: amending the UAW constitution to enable members to directly elect leaders, a system imposed during the government takeover of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

"That's a pretty significant one," Schneider said. "Don't you think?" 

The move to hire Cleary Gottlieb, a firm the UAW says it has retained periodically over the past 27 years, follows months of rare, public criticism from Schneider amid a mounting list of former UAW officials who have pleaded guilty to crimes or started cooperating with investigators.

"The UAW continues to fully cooperate with the government. We have produced millions of pages of documents and electronic records to the government, and we have brought in every UAW witness the government has asked to speak with or have testify in the grand jury," Rothenberg said. 

"The current UAW Board took unprecedented action against former President Gary Jones and former Regional Director Vance Pearson, filing charges against them to remove them from office and strip them of their membership in the union," he continued. "The UAW likewise filed internal charges against all the other individuals who have been implicated in the government’s investigation, and has provided copies of all those charges to the government."

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The investigation could lead to the government seizing control of one of the nation's most powerful unions — a prospect Gamble has openly said he is working to avert. Still, Schneider has said repeatedly, that option remains on the table.

"We need to work through the criminal cases then decide the next step for the union," he said. "We are having positive discussions and doing research."

The level of cooperation from the UAW continues to underwhelm Schneider. Since November, Schneider has faulted UAW officials for failing to cooperate or to enact reforms federal authorities deem sufficient to counter wrongdoing and to quash the union's "culture of corruption.

"Our position hasn't changed at all," Schneider said, adding: "They have other issues they are dealing with now. They are also trying to keep their workers safe and negotiating with auto plants."

Gamble's offer to meet and using a law firm to push reforms is smart, Gordon said: “The UAW has been slow to learn that it is not as powerful as it used to be. They used to use political clout and a code of silence to get through bad times. The UAW has either at the last minute, or one minute too late, figured out it’s not working.”

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