UAW official got Disney tickets, Palm Springs trip during conspiracy

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
Norwood Jewell, UAW V.P. of the FCA US Department, speaks at the Sterling Stamping Plant in 2016 as FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne listens.

Detroit — Former United Auto Workers Vice President Norwood Jewell tapped a training fund to pay for more than $10,000 worth of golf resort accommodations in Palm Springs, California, and Disney World tickets, a spending spree that is the focus of an ongoing federal corruption investigation, sources told The Detroit News.

The Palm Springs discovery is part of a broader focus on how UAW officials spent training funds from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and member dues on condominiums, liquor, extravagant meals and golf in the desert oasis. UAW officials spent almost $1 million in member dues from 2014 to 2016 in Palm Springs, where Gary Jones held annual conferences before becoming president in June.

The Palm Springs and theme park expenses are described by sources as examples of illegal benefits flowing to UAW officials during a years-long conspiracy to violate federal labor laws. The conspiracy involved Fiat Chrysler executives funneling cash and gifts to UAW officials in hopes of swaying contract negotiations and keeping labor leaders "fat, dumb and happy," according to the government.

Four sources familiar with the investigation help unmask Jewell as "UAW-3," a recurring figure referenced in hundreds of pages of criminal filings as a high-ranking union leader who received approximately $50,000 worth of lavish gifts and benefits from Fiat Chrysler executives. The gifts include an Italian shotgun and a $30,000 party that featured strolling models who lit labor leaders' cigars, all paid for with Fiat Chrysler cash that was supposed to be spent training blue-collar workers.

"The government has made it clear they are looking at him but has it advanced to the point that they are willing to go forward with an indictment if they are not able to reach a plea agreement?" said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. "The key question is if another shoe is going to drop and will it have Norwood Jewell's name on it?"

Jewell's criminal defense lawyer Joseph Duffy did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Prosecutors are armed with evidence including bank documents, credit card records, emails and testimony from at least six former Fiat Chrysler and UAW officials. All six, including Jewell's former top administrative assistant Nancy Adams Johnson and former Fiat Chrysler Vice President Alphons Iacobelli, have pleaded guilty to crimes and are cooperating with a criminal investigation that prosecutors warned two months ago was "far from" finished.

Federal court records and interviews help pinpoint the government's interest in Jewell, who has not been charged with a crime. Jewell, 61, of Davison, abruptly retired in January after The News linked him to the investigation and his home was searched by federal agents.

FCA training funds used for UAW exec’s pricey '14 party

Jewell's involvement in the investigation dates to June 2014. That's when Jewell, who headed a UAW region based in Flint, replaced Vice President General Holiefield as head of the union's Fiat Chrysler department.

Two months later, Fiat Chrysler executives bankrolled a $30,000 coming-out party for Jewell at the FCA-UAW World Class Manufacturing Academy in Warren.

Iacobelli authorized spending the money on “ultra-premium” liquor, strolling models and $3,000 for wine bottles with custom labels that featured Jewell’s name.

The party was one way Fiat Chrysler executives sought a corporate advantage by funneling money to UAW officials, prosecutors said.

Alphons Iacobelli, far right, leaves the U.S. District Court in Detroit on August 1, alongside Susanne Piwinski-Iacobelli and his lawyer David DuMouchel, left.

"High-level UAW officials engaged in obscenely expensive meals, parties, and the unlimited consumption of alcohol at the expense of FCA," Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gardey wrote in a sentencing memo for Iacobelli. "In this way, UAW officials became indebted to FCA and Iacobelli at the expense of violating their duty to loyally represent tens of thousands of rank and file UAW members."

Five months after the cigar party, in January 2015, Jewell and his top administrative assistant Nancy Adams Johnson flew to Palm Springs. They attended at least one week-long conference but stayed for approximately six weeks, sources said.

Nancy Adams Johnson, left, and Norwood Jewell, the UAW vice president handling Chrysler negotiations and co-president of the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center. Johnson is VP of the center, which has already drawn federal scrutiny.

Fiat Chrysler paid for at least some of their expenses, which included private accommodations, golf resort fees and lavish meals, according to the government.

The Palm Springs expenses for Jewell and others totaled approximately $10,000, sources told The News.

Prosecutors leveled the allegation in a plea agreement for former Fiat Chrysler executive Michael Brown, who was sentenced last month to one year and a day in prison for helping cover up the conspiracy.

2 auto execs, UAW official sentenced to prison

"Michael Brown knew that the purpose of the conspiracy to provide prohibited payments to UAW officials was to grease the skids in order to obtain benefits, advantages and concessions in the negotiation, implementation and administration of the collective bargaining agreements between FCA and the UAW," prosecutors wrote in Brown's plea agreement.

UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg has said the union is "confident the terms of our collective bargaining agreements were not impacted."

The government's focus on Palm Springs is at odds with the UAW's defense that member dues were not involved in a conspiracy that lasted from 2009 to 2017. UAW members pay about $670 to $1,600 in dues annually, depending on their hourly wage, according to the government.

Adams Johnson told federal prosecutors that former UAW President Dennis Williams directed subordinates to save the union money by using funds from Detroit’s automakers, funneled through training centers, to pay for union travel, meals and entertainment.

UAW President Dennis Williams, seen in 2013, is touting a “Buy American” advertising campaign, while being flanked by UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell, left.

The expenses continued beyond Palm Springs.

In May 2015, UAW officials were in Orlando for a health and safety conference. UAW financial reports indicate the union spent $31,730 for hotel rooms at Disney World.

Jewell directed UAW official Virdell King to use a training center credit card to buy all-day passes to Disney World, sources told The News. Jewell instructed her to buy approximately $25,000 worth of passes, a source familiar with the investigation said.

Virdell King

King, however, didn't have enough available credit on the training center card. So she bought a smaller number of tickets, the source said.

The Disney World passes were not for Jewell, sources said. The tickets were for, among others, a retired high-ranking UAW official and their relatives, none of whom worked for the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center.

King, meanwhile, was indicted in August 2017 and accused of conspiring to violate the Labor Management Relations Act. She later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 60 days in federal prison but could receive a lesser sentence because she continues to cooperate with investigators.

The King indictment alludes to the Disney World expenses: "Virdell King's (national training center) credit card purchases made at the direction and for the benefit of senior UAW officials also included golf equipment, luggage, concert tickets, theme park tickets, and other personal purchases and expenses."

King used her training center credit card to buy as much as $15,000 worth of items for herself.

"In addition to making personal purchases, Ms. King regularly was asked by superiors, including Mr. Holiefield, his successor Norwood Jewell, and Mr. Jewell’s administrative assistant Nancy Johnson ... to make improper purchases that personally benefited them and which totaled at least another $25,000-$30,000," King's lawyer John Shea wrote in a court filing.

Jewell's assistant Adams Johnson was in Orlando the same month as the May 2015 conference. Prosecutors say she used her training center card to buy more than $1,000 worth of designer clothing at DivaLicious, a boutique near Orlando, in May 2015.

Jewell's upcoming birthday in August 2015 brought additional federal scrutiny, and criminal exposure.

Adams Johnson decided to give him a shotgun as a birthday present, prosecutors said.

Adams Johnson told King to make the purchase.

"Ask them for a really good one with case," Adams Johnson texted King.

So King went to the Field & Stream store in Troy and bought a $2,182 Beretta shotgun made in Italy. 

Feds probe UAW spending on purses, shotgun

The shotgun purchase factored into Adams Johnson's guilty plea in July. She will be sentenced Dec. 18 and faces up to 18 months in federal prison. 

Jewell received more than resort vacations, a shotgun and Disney World tickets. He also received political gifts from Fiat Chrysler, prosecutors allege.

Part of the conspiracy involved Fiat Chrysler executives letting Jewell and other UAW officials offer "sham employment" at the training center to friends, relatives and allies, according to the government. 

Fiat Chrysler executives reimbursed the UAW the cost of salaries and benefits paid to people assigned to the training center despite "knowing that a number of those individuals did little work or no work on behalf of the (training center)," prosecutors wrote in Brown's plea deal.

"Michael Brown and other FCA executives authorized these sham reimbursement payments as a political gift to UAW Vice President General Holiefield, (Jewell), other UAW officials and the UAW," prosecutors wrote. 

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Twitter: @robertsnellnews