Ex-UAW official Nancy Adams Johnson sent to prison

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
Nancy Adams Johnson

Detroit — A high-ranking United Auto Workers official who implicated President Dennis Williams and others in a corruption investigation involving Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison Tuesday.

Nancy Adams Johnson betrayed the trust of blue-collar workers by accepting thousands of dollars in illegal payments from Fiat Chrysler and spending the money on $1,100 Christian Louboutin shoes, private accommodations, golf resorts and lavish meals, according to the government. She also funneled tens of thousands of dollars of illegal payments from Fiat Chrysler to other senior UAW officials.

Johnson, 58, of Macomb Township is the seventh and final person sentenced in a widespread conspiracy to violate federal labor laws, a conspiracy that has reshuffled the top ranks of the auto industry and the labor union that represents 450,000 workers.

She, along with several others convicted so far, including former Fiat Chrysler Vice President Alphons Iacobelli, are cooperating with investigators and could serve as a bridge to a second round of criminal charges against additional union and auto executives.

Johnson choked back tears while asking U.S. District Judge Paul Borman for mercy and leniency and apologizing for her role in a conspiracy that has raised questions about the sanctity of labor negotiations.

"I hope the membership of the UAW and other labor unions find in their heart to forgive me for any wrongdoing I have done," Johnson said while dabbing tears from her eyes. "The membership deserves better."

Johnson's lawyer wanted her to spend no time in prison, pointing to her ongoing cooperation with the government, contrition and health problems that include a brain tumor. Though she could have faced up to 18 months in prison, prosecutors requested a 12-month sentence.

"Instead of helping rank-and-file workers provide food for their families, Ms. Johnson provided a high-flying lifestyle for senior officials and herself," Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gardey told the judge.

Johnson also must pay a $10,000 fine but could receive less time in prison if her ongoing cooperation is substantial.

Prosecutors are armed with evidence including bank documents, credit card records, emails and testimony from at least six former Fiat Chrysler and UAW officials, including Johnson.

"Cold bank records don't tell you much, but if you have someone who can say 'this is what the money was used for,' she could be one way to help the government build a case against people higher up in the UAW," said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. 

She was sentenced five months after pleading guilty to violating a federal law prohibiting labor officials from receiving cash and valuable items from employers.

In the ensuing months, Johnson has evolved into a key witness for the government. She told investigators about UAW leaders spending approximately $1 million of membership dues on condominiums, liquor, food and golf in Palm Springs, California, where Gary Jones held annual conferences before becoming president.

She also told investigators that Williams, who retired in June, directed subordinates to save the union money by using funds from Detroit’s automakers to pay for union travel, meals and entertainment.

Prosecutors have referenced as many as five unindicted co-conspirators, including Johnson's former boss, UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell, who retired in January after his home was raided by investigators. 

Ex-UAW official got Disney tix, trips

While meeting with investigators, Johnson has been diligent, truthful and forthcoming about corruption within the auto industry, Gardey told the judge.

"Ms. Johnson is genuinely a good person," he said. "Unfortunately, she gave way to temptation."

In pushing for a 12-month sentence, prosecutors revealed a vignette that portrayed senior UAW officials dining on $15,000 worth of steaks, liquor and cigars paid for by Fiat Chrysler at a time when they were supposed to be negotiating against the automaker for a new contract for rank-and-file autoworkers.

She is continuing to provide insight into what prosecutors call the corrupt senior ranks of the UAW so the U.S. Attorney's Office successfully pushed to delay Adams Johnson's arrival at prison for six months. 

Nancy Adams Johnson, left, and Norwood Jewell

Prosecutors last month labeled Jewell, who oversaw the union's Fiat Chrysler department before abruptly resigning in January, an unindicted co-conspirator. They also refer to him 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 a $2,180 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.

Investigators also have learned 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, sources told The News.

“Today’s sentence rightfully punishes the unacceptable misconduct of a former UAW official who betrayed our members' trust," union spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in a statement Tuesday. "The UAW is confident that Ms. Johnson’s misconduct had no effect on the collective bargaining agreement between the UAW and Chrysler — which has numerous checks and balances and requires a vote by the entire membership, among other things."

Federal prosecutors have labeled the UAW, Fiat Chrysler and the jointly operated UAW-Chrysler National Training Center as co-conspirators. The allegation potentially exposes the automaker and the UAW to criminal charges, fines and governmental oversight, according to a former federal prosecutor.


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