UAW President Curry under investigation for possible ethical misconduct

Breana Noble Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — United Auto Workers President Ray Curry is under investigation by the UAW's ethics officer for possible ethical misconduct for accepting almost $2,000 worth of tickets from a union vendor to watch the University of Alabama play in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship game.

The investigation was disclosed Thursday by New York lawyer Neil Barofsky, a court-appointed watchdog in charge of reforming the UAW following a years-long corruption scandal that led to the conviction of 11 labor officials — including two former presidents — and pushed the union to the brink of federal takeover.

Barofsky filed a 188-page report chronicling work conducted by his team of investigators since spring. The report reveals Barofsky has 15 open investigations into misconduct and has concluded one involving Curry, who is the fourth consecutive UAW president to be investigated. Two predecessors, Gary Jones and Dennis Williams, are serving federal prison sentences for wrongdoing during their tenure. His immediate predecessor, Rory Gamble, was cleared of wrongdoing following an investigation.

Unlike the cases of Jones and Williams, the probe involving Curry is not criminal in nature but could result in “corrective action” by the union.

Ray Curry, president of the United Auto Workers

On May 17, Curry, prior to becoming the UAW president in July after Gamble retired, paid back the $1,900 face value of the four tickets to the UAW, according to the report. In a letter Thursday to UAW members, Curry said he did so "voluntarily and without any request or demand," resulting in the International Executive Board deciding there was no violation of existing union policy.

Barofsky determined that because of the age of the conduct, its lack of "relative materiality" and the ambiguity regarding the UAW's policies on such matters, the situation didn't warrant further consideration. Further details weren't shared at the request of the UAW's ethics officer, Wilma Liebman, former National Labor Relations Board chairman, who is further investigating the matter.

"I want my brothers and sisters to know that I have been fully transparent with the International Union and the Monitor and have cooperated with the monitor’s inquiry into the matter," Curry wrote. "Despite this ruling, I am personally pained that any question whatsoever was raised as a result of any action on my part."

At the recommendation of the monitor, the union has instituted a new policy that the UAW will no longer enter into any contracts with vendors that include any sporting, concert or entertainment ticket as part of the contract, Curry added.

Barofsky also raised concerns about lingering problems, including an "unhealthy culture" and faulted UAW leaders for failing to promptly cooperate with requests for documents or address 140 reforms recommended by a consultant in spring 2020.

The UAW is committed to ensuring misconduct exposed by federal investigators is not repeated, union lawyer Terence Campbell wrote in a separate court filing Thursday. He cited several reforms, including a new code of conduct for leaders, that were enacted by the union's governing board Oct. 28 — just ahead of what was widely expected to be Barofsky's critical report to U.S. District Judge David Lawson.

“At some point, union members have to wonder whether they wouldn’t have been better off if the government had just taken over the UAW,” Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School, told The Detroit News.

The report also argues the UAW initially wasn't transparent with the monitor on the union's audits and investigations into local unions. Investigators found an absence of a formal, consistent disciplinary process within the union, as well.

The filing may add fuel to the fire for greater reforms in the UAW, including implementing direct elections of the UAW International Executive Board — a proposal on which the nearly 1 million active members and retirees are now voting. This referendum is a part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department announced almost a year ago that required an independent monitor to oversee the union and investigate ethical complaints for at least six years. The consent decree combined with other internal financial reforms the union made had led former president Gamble and Curry to declare the UAW as a "clean union" with "a culture of transparency, reforms and checks and balances."

As director of UAW Region 8, Curry signed contracts on behalf of the union with marketing vendors to purchase advertising that promoted the union at sporting events and that those contracts offered a "ticket allowance" for the union or "merchandising points" to acquire tickets, according to the report. Curry signed six contracts with values ranging $8,500 to $50,000.

"Although he usually forwarded the tickets that the union received to someone else for distribution to other members, Curry used tickets from one of these agreements on one occasion to attend the national college football championship game nearly five years ago," Barofsky wrote.

Alabama lost the 2017 championship game against the Clemson Tigers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

“Curry explained that, on the day of the game, he was already in the area where the game was located working on a contract negotiation with three other UAW staff members,” the watchdog wrote.

Curry, who headed a UAW region spanning Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and several other southern states, attended with three staffers. They used tickets from a UAW marketing vendor.

For some UAW members, however, it sounds like more of what they have been hearing in recent years: "It looks like to me that this guy was doing what they were all doing or what was accepted, but not what was expected,” said Jonathon Mason, 45, of Detroit, a production floor associate at Ford Motor Co.’s Dearborn Truck Plant. “I’m glad that this hopefully will be the end of that era and the beginning of a more transparent era.”

Dajuan Hampton, 31, of Detroit, who works in materials at Stellantis NV’s Warren Truck Assembly Plant, added: “I’ve been here 22 years, it isn’t a new story to me. It’s almost becoming the way of the land. At this point, I’m not surprised.”

In early September, the monitor received nearly 700,000 documents from the Justice Department's closed investigations into union corruption to investigate historical acts of misconduct among union officials who haven't been charged in a criminal case. 

The U.S. government proposed Gil Soffer, a Chicago attorney, in September as the union's adjudications officer to hear misconduct cases and determine if and what punishment is needed, including possible expulsion from the union or termination of employment.

Gil Soffer, managing partner of Katten Muchin Rosenman's Chicago office, is the adjudications officer for the United Auto Workers.

Barofsky said his work "was slowed in getting off the ground by the Union's pace in making relevant documents and information available," echoing previous statements from former U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider. Barofsky says the union wasn't initially transparent about its investigations into misconduct at local union. He is "hopeful the issues that were impeding its progress have been resolved."

Barofsky also investigated the union's "unhealthy culture" in which staff members were unwilling to disagree with superiors about problems or issues for fear of losing their position, citing a May 2020 draft report from outside consultant and ethics ombudsman Exiger LLC. Conditions improved when Gamble took the top office in November 2019, according to the report, but fear of retaliation remains. Additionally, it found an absence of consistent and fair discipline.

"Members of the IEB, the president, regional directors and other senior leaders in positions of authority are not constrained by any written disciplinary policies and instead 'have wide latitude on disciplinary measures,'" Barofsky wrote.

He said the union must do more to make UAW employees feel that it encourages ethical behavior and protects those who make it a priority. The union has largely accepted suggested reforms, he wrote, including creating a dedicated compliance department, adding compliance and ethics a standing item on executive board and staff meetings and providing regular compliance updates.

But some UAW members say election reforms are needed to bring greater accountability and transparency to leadership and represent non-automotive sectors in particular. Under the current system, locals elect delegates to represent them at conventions to vote on the union's 13-member board consisting of a president, a secretary-treasurer, three vice presidents leading departments for each of the Detroit automakers and eight regional directors.

For 70 years, the delegates nearly always have elected the slate of candidates endorsed by the Reuther or Administrative Caucus. UAW members at the end of October were mailed ballots to vote on whether to maintain the delegate system or institute direct elections. They must be returned — not postmarked — by Nov. 29.

“The people who work on the floor, who actually build these trucks, will feel like they have a voice and feel like they have a choice, not getting a choice forced on us,” Mason said. “We send delegates, and the delegates don’t necessarily take what’s best from the floor to the international level.

"Some people just lose sight of that. One member, one vote will bring some type of dignity to the UAW for folks that are working on the floor, men and women who are turning out the best product we can for Ford Motor Company and the other American automakers.”

Meanwhile, 15 people and automaker Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV have been convicted as a part of the federal government's criminal probe into union corruption.

The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday charged a 16th person, Tim Edmunds, the former Local 412 financial secretary/treasurer, with embezzling more than $2 million in union funds, money laundering and spending the funds on gambling, guns, cars and child-support payments. UAW auditors identified the improper expenditures this summer, leading the union to champion its internal reforms as a "deterrent" to malfeasance.

The union has hired outside experts, installed an independently staffed ethics hotline for misconduct reports, created an internal audit function and begun the process of establishing a robust controls environment.

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