Feds probe UAW spending on purses, shotgun
Detroit — Federal agents probing a $4.5 million corruption scandal are investigating questionable spending by more leaders of the United Auto Workers, including pricey designer purses and a $2,180 shotgun bought with union training center funds, The Detroit News has learned.
The investigation has entangled current and former top UAW officials, including union Vice President Norwood Jewell, who received the shotgun as a birthday present in 2015 after the firearm was purchased with funds earmarked for blue-collar workers, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
The purchase is part of a broader pattern of personal spending by some board members at the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center, multiple sources told The News. The UAW said that Jewell didn’t know the shotgun was purchased with training center money.
The case has implicated Jewell’s predecessor, the late General Holiefield, and led to criminal charges against three people, including a former Fiat Chrysler top labor executive and Holiefield’s widow.
The purchases offer insight into what people familiar with the case describe as a culture of entitlement among labor leaders and Fiat Chrysler executives working at the Detroit training center.
Fiat Chrysler invested as much as $47 million a year into the center to help train blue-collar workers, but the lack of financial oversight appears to have bred “a culture of corruption,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.
“Was FCA buying labor peace by creating a piggy bank? That’s a fair question,” Henning said. “I suspect the training center was formed with the best of intentions, but this shows how easily a good thing can get co-opted.”
The new details and focus of an ongoing investigation involving the FBI and Internal Revenue Service are emerging three weeks after a federal grand jury indicted former Fiat Chrysler executive Alphons Iacobelli and Monica Morgan-Holiefield. The auto executive and the widow are accused of conspiring in a scheme that drained more than $4.5 million from the training center over several years.
The probe — which sources say is expected to lead to additional criminal charges — and the money involved amount to one of the largest labor racketeering and fraud cases nationwide in the last decade, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.
The UAW learned of the federal investigation in January 2016 and launched an internal probe, according to a source familiar with the investigation. The union took action against certain people, but it was unclear how many or what action was taken.
Personal purchases billed to the UAW-Chrysler training center involved multiple former members of the center’s governing board and the splurging continued after Holiefield’s death in early 2015, sources told The News.
The indictment portrays Iacobelli as the most egregious abuser of training center funds, but he was not alone.
Iacobelli spent more than $1 million in training center funds on a $350,000-plus Ferrari 458 Spider and two limited-edition, solid-gold Mont Blanc fountain pens that cost $37,500 each, according to the indictment. He also is accused of using the money to install a pool, outdoor spa and kitchen at his house, which faces the possibility of being forfeited to the government.
The 42-page indictment accuses Iacobelli, former FCA financial analyst Jerome Durden and other unnamed co-conspirators of using the training center’s bank accounts and credit cards to funnel payoffs to Holiefield and other senior UAW officials.
Iacobelli and others created a liberal spending policy to keep senior UAW leaders “fat, dumb and happy,” according to the indictment.
Training center funds helped pay off the $262,220 mortgage on the Holiefields’ home in Harrison Township, prosecutors allege. In all, Holiefield and his wife received more than $1.2 million in illegal payments and luxury items, including designer clothing, jewelry and furniture, according to the indictment.
Fiat Chrysler learned of the federal investigation in June 2015 and it fired Iacobelli and Durden after completing an internal investigation.
Iacobelli was later hired by General Motors Co. but he was suspended after being indicted last month.
The investigation has uncovered instances of credit cards being used for personal purchases, The News has learned.
Jewell’s top administrative assistant, Nancy Johnson, sat on the board as recently as last fall, according to the center’s website. The use of Johnson’s credit card has drawn scrutiny from federal agents investigating corruption at the training center, sources told The News. They said the Macomb Township resident’s training center credit card was used to buy luxury designer purses.
Johnson, who was paid $136,665 in 2015, her last full year of employment, declined comment Thursday when asked about the use of her training center credit card.
“I have no response,” Johnson, 56, said.
Johnson retired last fall, according to social media posts. Friends threw a “surprise” retirement party for her in August 2016. Admission cost $25 and included an open bar.
Retired UAW Associate Director Virdell King also sat on the UAW-Chrysler training center board for several years. The News exclusively reported last month that King is a potential target of the FBI investigation and has hired criminal defense lawyer John Shea amid questions about personal purchases made using her training center credit card.
King’s lawyer declined comment. Jewell did not respond to a message seeking comment Thursday.
In one purchase drawing federal scrutiny, King used a training center credit card to buy a $2,180 shotgun for Jewell as a birthday present, two sources told The News. Johnson told her to buy the firearm for the UAW vice president, one of the sources said.
The UAW confirmed Jewell received the shotgun. “In 2015, Norwood Jewell was given a gift of a shotgun that without his knowledge had been purchased using (training center) funds,” the UAW said in a statement Thursday to The Detroit News. “When he discovered the source of the funds in early 2016, he reimbursed the NTC for the $2,180 cost of the gun.
“We have thoroughly investigated the matter and concluded that Norwood Jewell did nothing illegal and has acted in line with the UAW’s ethical practices.”
The UAW said union officials are cooperating with the investigation.
Jewell, 59, was elected a UAW vice president in June 2014. He leads the union’s Fiat Chrysler department and is the current co-chairman of the training center. He also leads union negotiations with General Dynamics and agriculture and heavy truck companies.
Following the indictment, the UAW and Fiat Chrysler said they had worked together with the training center to implement new internal controls. They include safeguards including hiring a full-time controller; banning any charitable donation from the center to any charity run or controlled by a UAW official; implementing new vendor and credit card processes and policies; having budgets approved by the training center board or directors; and creating a hotline to report suspected wrongdoing.
UAW retiree William D. Hanline of Decatur, Alabama has spent years researching the finances of the training centers. He is critical of the training centers and the use of joint UAW-company funds. Hanline, 69, worked for GM and Delphi and retired as an assembly line worker in 2009.
“They’ve used those programs not to protect workers, not to protect their jobs, not to retain the work inside the communities inside Michigan or St. Louis, Missouri or anywhere,” he said.