Ex-UAW President Williams sentenced to 21 months in union corruption probe

Robert Snell Breana Noble
The Detroit News
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Detroit — Former United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison Tuesday for stealing from union members during a conspiracy that stripped one of the nation's most influential unions of its clean reputation and led to prolonged government oversight.

Williams, 67, of Corona, Calif., is the highest-ranking UAW official sentenced during a four-year-old prosecution that has secured 15 convictions and revealed UAW leaders and auto executives broke labor laws, stole union funds and received bribes and kickbacks. 

UAW President Dennis Williams at the podium during the 2015 UAW Special Bargaining Convention at Cobo Center.

The sentencing by U.S. District Judge Paul Borman comes nearly three years after Williams retired to cheers during a convention at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit, and planned to move into a $1.3 million lakefront home in Northern Michigan paid for by the UAW, but built by mostly nonunion labor. His retirement marked the ascension of his ambitious underling, Gary Jones, and Williams celebrated the event by minting gold coins for supporters that read: "Life isn't complete unless you have made the lives of others better."

Behind the scenes, Williams and other labor leaders were stealing from members by using union funds to pay for personal luxuries, including months-long stays in private Palm Springs villas, $150,000 spent on golf and pro shop spending sprees, $60,000 on cigar-store purchases and a $6,000 dinners at steakhouses from Detroit to California.

On Tuesday, Williams spoke during the virtual court hearing, apologizing for his corrupt acts: "Most of all I want to apologize to the men and women of the UAW," he said. "I cannot express my sorrow about this ending. I feel foolish and embarrassed taking Gary Jones at his word when he said everything at the conference was above board. In my gut, I knew better.”

Federal prosecutors faulted Williams for continuing to point fingers at others and said he “created an entitlement culture and crimes that left the UAW reeling,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Cares said. “Abuses of power created a stain on the union that will take years to wash away.

Williams reinforced a distorted culture within the top echelon of the UAW, Cares said: “An upside-down version of solidarity: once I get to the top, I’ll get mine by taking yours.”

The sentence could provide insight into what type of penalty former UAW presidents receive after almost a dozen UAW officials, including two vice presidents, have been convicted and sentenced to prison. Jones, whose short career as president ended in scandal in fall 2019, will be sentenced June 8.

The Williams sentence is the fourth-longest issued during the UAW corruption scandal. Former Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV Vice President Alphons Iacobelli was sentenced to 5 1/2 years, UAW Vice President Joe Ashton was sentenced to 30 months and ex-union aide Mike Grimes got a 28-month sentence.

The sentence for Williams was too light, said Mike Booth, a 56-year-old electrician at Stellantis NV’s Sterling Heights Assembly Plant.

“These guys knew what they were doing. You know going into something like that that it is wrong,” he said. “This is not a mistake. This was willful. It’s white-collar crime against blue-collar work.”

Federal prosecutors in December announced the end of a criminal investigation targeting the UAW that resulted in plans to install a government watchdog tasked with eradicating corruption within the union.

The oversight is expected to last six years, cost millions and could result in current UAW leaders being removed and replaced. A criminal investigation of individuals is ongoing, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit.

Williams pleaded guilty in September and portrayed himself as willfully ignorant about how Jones paid for regional conferences and luxuries for labor leaders in Palm Springs and other cities during a conspiracy that lasted from 2010-19. The embezzlement conspiracy charge is punishable by up to five years in federal prison.

Since pleading guilty, Williams has paid $132,517 restitution to the UAW and $15,459 in taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.

Prosecutors wanted Williams to spend two years in federal prison for conspiring with at least six other labor leaders to embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on luxuries at UAW junkets in Palm Springs, Coronado, Calif., and Missouri.

Three people accused of being involved in the racketeering conspiracy have not been charged with wrongdoing amid the ongoing investigation. They are: the late UAW regional director Jim Wells; former Williams aide Amy Loasching, whose Wisconsin home was raided in August 2019; and former Jones aide Danny Trull.

Sources helped decipher pseudonyms used by the government to identify former UAW officials implicated in alleged racketeering activity. They are (clockwise from center): Gary Jones, aka "UAW Official A"; Dennis Williams, aka "UAW Official B"; Danny Trull, aka "UAW Official C"; Amy Loasching, aka "UAW Official D"; the late Jim Wells, aka "UAW Official E"; Edward "Nick" Robinson and Vance Pearson.

The Detroit News also reported last year that federal agents were probing financial ties between retired Vice President Jimmy Settles and one of the union's highest-paid vendors. No charges have been filed.

Prosecutors portrayed Williams as an imperious, hypocritical thief who publicly bemoaned corruption while secretly helping steal from members. Defense lawyers urged the judge to sentence Williams to one year in prison, calling him an American success story and charitable leader suffering from health problems.

Court filings last week revealed the scope of cooperation from Jones and former UAW regional director Vance Pearson, who is awaiting a likely prison sentence for his role in the scandal. They blamed Williams for the scheme and said they felt pressured to spend union money on personal luxuries for Williams, including $1,760 worth of champagne requested by his wife, Donna.

Williams, however, blamed Jones and Pearson.

UAW member Scott Houldieson, chairman of the new Unite All Workers for Democracy caucus, was troubled that Williams continued to try to deflect blame: “It shows that he is not truly taking responsibility.”

Houldieson lamented the long-lasting repercussions of Williams’ and others’ crimes that have resulted in government oversight. As a part of that, the union must hold a referendum vote on whether to institute the direct election of international leaders within six months of the approved appointment of a government watchdog.

“UAW members are going to continue to pay for these illegal activities for years to come, maybe decades,” Houldieson said. “It has damaged our ability to organize. It’s going to continue to cost us our treasury.”

Williams was rightfully sentenced for putting his self-interests above members and the union, UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in a statement Tuesday: “These serious crimes violated the oath of UAW officers and they violated the trust of UAW officers to handle our members’ sacred dues money."

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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