Corrupt ex-UAW President Dennis Williams deserves two years in prison, feds say

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
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Federal prosecutors Monday portrayed former United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams as an imperious, hypocritical thief who should spend two years in prison for helping embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on luxuries, including private villas, cigars, booze and more.

Williams, 67, will be sentenced May 11, the first of two former UAW presidents convicted in a landmark corruption crackdown that has revealed labor leaders and auto executives broke labor laws, stole union funds and received bribes and illegal benefits from union contractors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV executives. The federal prosecution has led to prolonged oversight by the government that will last six years, cost millions and target wrongdoing within one of the nation's most influential unions.

UAW President Dennis Williams at the UAW's 36th Constitutional Convention 2014 at Cobo Center in Detroit, Thursday, June 05, 2014.

"The reverberations of these actions will last years, if not decades," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steven Cares and David Gardey wrote in a sentencing memo. "Williams has cast a stain on the UAW. He undermined the trust that the UAW had built up — with its members, with union workers, and even with the general public. Current and future UAW members will carry this burden for years to come — a burden that Dennis Williams has laid at their feet."

Williams' lawyers were expected to file a sentencing recommendation but one was not posted on the public docket Monday afternoon.

The government’s sentencing memorandum sheds light on how his successor, former President Gary Jones, cooperated with the investigation and implicated Williams in a scheme to spend UAW money on personal luxuries in Palm Springs and other cities, prosecutors wrote.

“In fact, according to Jones, Williams was ‘instrumental’ in the scheme because he implemented a policy change that gave sufficient funding to allow for the extravagant conferences," prosecutors wrote.

Williams lived a double life, publicly excoriating economic conditions that kept union workers from being able to afford items they built, while secretly exploiting UAW members, prosecutors wrote. 

“Eventually though, this double life caught up to him,” prosecutors wrote. “As the UAW criminal investigation unwound, an ugly truth emerged. The highest-level officials, including then President Dennis Williams, embezzled thousands of dollars of hard-earned union funds on lavish, personal entertainment.”

Williams pleaded guilty in September and portrayed himself as willfully ignorant about how his successor, Jones, paid for regional conferences in Palm Springs, California, during a conspiracy that lasted from 2010-19. During a long speech, Williams blamed Jones for covering up the spending of more than $1 million in union funds on luxury items during UAW junkets in Palm Springs. Those items included private villas for months at a time, cigars, liquor and golf.

The embezzlement worsened the longer Williams stayed in office. Williams telegraphed the graft in a 2014 phone call with UAW regional director Vance Pearson, who also is awaiting a likely prison sentence for his role in the scandal.

During the phone call, the two discussed how long Williams would stay in Palm Springs for a conference that lasted as long as a week.

“In that call, Williams explained that he would stay in Palm Springs for one month his first year in office, two months the second, three months the third, and four months for the fourth,” prosecutors wrote.

Williams almost kept his word. In 2014, Williams stayed in Palm Springs for one month even though “other than a brief opening day speech, he had little involvement in any legitimate conference activities,” according to prosecutors.

In 2015, Williams stayed 37 days. Then 105 days the next year, and 121 days in 2017. But in 2018, Williams only stayed 71 days.

“And the cost was substantial. For the 2017 conference, for example, the UAW paid $20,000, just for Williams’s accommodations,” prosecutors wrote.

Williams, Jones and others spent member dues on lavish perks while in Palm Springs, including $150,000 on golf and pro shop spending sprees, $60,000 on cigar-store purchases and a $6,500 dinner at LG’s Prime Steakhouse on New Year’s Eve in 2016.

“The bill included thousands of dollars of liquor, wine, and four bottles of champagne (that alone cost $1,760), a specific request by Williams’s wife,” prosecutors wrote.

Williams knew or should have known that “out-of-control” expenses were paid for with UAW money, prosecutors wrote.

The virtual sentencing will mark a rare public appearance for the former UAW leader. 

Williams was the target of a nationwide series of federal raids in Metro Detroit, northern Michigan, California and Wisconsin in August 2019. He was held at gunpoint, ordered to lie down and handcuffed after confronting federal agents who arrived to search his $610,000 home near Los Angeles in August 2019.

Williams, who headed the UAW from 2014-18, also has agreed to forfeit several items seized during the raid and has repaid more than $56,000. Those seized items include a set of Titleist golf clubs, clothing and golf merchandise. He also is required to pay taxes to the IRS.

The criminal case capped a prolonged period of uncertainty for Williams, who retired in June 2018. He was publicly implicated in the corruption scandal the next month when The Detroit News named Williams as the unidentified UAW official accused in a federal court filing of illegally ordering underlings to offload entertainment and travel expenses to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

The conspiracy outlined by federal prosecutors started in 2010, when Williams was the UAW’s secretary/treasurer, and lasted until September 2019. The conspiracy involved top leaders in the UAW assigned to Detroit and a regional office in Missouri.

He deliberately misled members in 2017 about the scope of wrongdoing during the early days of the federal prosecution when union official Virdell King was charged with a crime.

“Based on our own internal investigation, we believe anyone who engaged in intentional misconduct is no longer employed by the UAW," Williams said in a statement issued by union spokesman Brian Rothenberg. 

The statement was a lie. As the investigation expanded, 11 union leaders would be charged and convicted of federal crimes, including Williams.

Williams pushed his leadership team to offload meals and entertainment expenses onto automakers who bankrolled joint training centers operated with the UAW. The expenses were paid for with training center credit cards issued to UAW leaders.

He was known for “ordering people who had such a card to come have lunch with him at the London Chop House, and to ‘bring [your] card,’” prosecutors wrote. Federal labor laws prohibit union leaders from accepting things of value from employers.

Publicly, Williams criticized corruption and spending training funds on personal luxuries. He wrote a letter to UAW members in 2017, writing that he was “appalled.”

The hypocrisy continued. He gave a speech at the 2018 UAW Constitutional Convention, which doubled as a retirement send-off for Williams. He marked the occasion by minting gold coins containing his image and a quote: “Life isn’t complete unless you have made the lives of others better.”

This coin was produced to celebrate the retirement of UAW President Dennis Williams in 2018.

During his speech, Williams claimed his team “had no knowledge of the misconduct” until being notified by the government,” prosecutors wrote. That, too, was a lie, prosecutors said.

That’s because Williams attended a $7,500 dinner at the London Chop House in July 2015 that kicked off collective bargaining negotiations with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The automaker picked up the tab.

And two months later, Williams and his negotiating team spent almost $7,000 at the Detroit steakhouse — and Fiat Chrysler again paid the bill.

As it had for other retiring presidents, the UAW started building a retirement home for Williams in 2018.

The Dennis Williams cabin at the UAW retreat in Onaway.

“But the costs to construct this lavish ‘cabin’ continued to grow,” prosecutors wrote. “Williams oversaw the design. And most importantly, he accepted this lavish, million-dollar lakefront ‘cabin’— which was, of course, paid for on the backs of the rank-and-file workers he was supposed to have led — for his personal benefit.”

The lakefront home became a symbol of UAW corruption after The News photographed the construction project and revealed how the UAW was using nonunion labor to build the home.

The UAW listed the home for $1.3 million after The News revealed federal investigators were looking into who was paying for the lakefront home.

“Williams’s actions and inactions substantially harmed UAW members, retirees, and the union itself,” prosecutors wrote. “He smoked, drank, and golfed away hard-earned dues money.”

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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