Tears and surprises flow as corrupt UAW official sent to prison

Robert Snell Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — A former United Auto Workers official who stole money from dues-paying members was sentenced to one year in federal prison Wednesday despite prosecutors urging he be spared for helping convict two former presidents and secure federal oversight of the beleaguered union.

The surprising sentence left Edward "Nick" Robinson sobbing, quivering, red-faced and gulping deep breaths while hanging his head after begging U.S. District Judge Paul Borman for a break.

Edward "Nick" Robinson, left, leaves the federal courthouse in Detroit with his attorney, James Martin, on Monday.

Borman gave Robinson a break from an advisory sentence of 30-37 months in prison because the UAW official wore secret recording devices and volunteered to help prosecutors uncover corruption within one of the nation's most influential unions.

Prosecutors asked the judge to keep Robinson, 73, of Kirkwood, Missouri, out of prison despite a nine-year crime spree that included Robinson helping steal hundreds of thousands of dollars in dues paid by rank-and-file UAW members. The money was spent on private villas, lavish meals, golf, liquor and other luxuries.

"I need to apologize to my union brothers,” Robinson said in a halting speech written on a piece of crumpled paper. “I failed them after 50 years. I will carry that burden the rest of my life, and God knows I am so sorry."

Prosecutors argued Robinson deserved to be spared prison because he volunteered to help the government and his cooperation secured the convictions of former UAW presidents Gary Jones and Dennis Williams.

Robinson deserved the break even though he was a thief who committed “straight-up fraud” and embezzled member dues from 2010-19, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gardey said.

“He betrayed the membership of the UAW,” Gardey said. “What Mr. Robinson did was contribute to a culture of corruption whereby top leaders treated the dues money of members as their personal piggy bank.”

Robinson's lawyer Jim Martin declined comment after the sentencing hearing, which was conducted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic closing federal court in Detroit.

The culmination of Robinson's case matched the drama that surrounded his unveiling as a cooperating witness two years ago. In charging the former Jones aide, prosecutors revealed Robinson wore a wire and recorded Jones and others talking about destroying evidence and obstructing justice.

In one conversation, 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.

UAW President Gary Jones, left, and Region 5 Director Vance Pearson.

UAW regional director Vance Pearson also told Robinson if he had anything incriminating "at your house, then get rid of it," prosecutors wrote in one court filing. The recordings soon led to Jones and Pearson being charged and pleading guilty, and would soon result in Williams admitting to federal crimes.

In all, the ongoing crackdown on auto industry corruption has led to the convictions of 15 people. The investigation has revealed labor leaders and auto executives broke federal labor laws, stole union funds and received bribes and illegal benefits from union contractors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles executives.

"Mr. Robinson’s crimes violate everything we stand for as a union," UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in a statement. "His cooperation with the government, while noteworthy, does not excuse his blatant disregard for the oath he took to serve the women and men he previously represented."

Robinson wore secret recording devices on at least 10 days from March-August 2019, prosecutors revealed. That includes Aug. 28, 2019, when federal agents raided multiple locations across the country, including Jones' Michigan home and a UAW regional office in Missouri.

In March, Robinson pleaded guilty to embezzling union funds and splitting the money with Jones. 

As part of his sentence, Robinson also reached tentative agreements to pay $300,000 restitution to the UAW and $42,000 to the IRS and forfeit golf equipment, including 12 clubs, shoes and more purchased with embezzled union money.

Robinson had asked to stay out of prison so he could care for his wife and cope with his own health problems. Instead, he is expected to report to a federal prison in August. Borman recommended that Robinson serve his sentence in a federal medical center.

“I am mortified that I am before you today," Robinson told the judge, "but the reality is I am guilty."

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews