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Detroit — Federal prosecutors charged former United Auto Workers Vice President Norwood Jewell on Monday with conspiracy to violate federal labor laws, the latest criminal charge filed in a years-long corruption investigation of the U.S. auto industry.

Jewell, 61, who headed the union's Fiat Chrysler department, was charged in a criminal information, which indicates a guilty plea is expected. The Swartz Creek resident is the highest-ranking former UAW official charged with a crime during a four-year investigation that has led to seven convictions and raised questions about the sanctity of labor negotiations.

The criminal case focuses heavily on how Fiat Chrysler executives bankrolled a life of luxury for Jewell and other UAW officials in Detroit and Palm Springs, California, with money that was supposed to train blue-collar workers. In all, prosecutors say Jewell and other UAW officials went on a $100,000 spending spree paid for by Fiat Chrysler.

The criminal charge comes eight months after prosecutors alleged former UAW President Dennis Williams directed subordinates to use funds from Detroit’s automakers, funneled through training centers, to pay for union travel, meals and entertainment. Williams has not been charged with any crimes during the ongoing investigation.

The Jewell case illustrates how the policy saved the UAW money and how union officials spent more than $58,000 at steakhouses and golfing in Palm Springs and Detroit — and how Fiat Chrysler executives picked up the bill. It is unclear whether Jewell is telling investigators anything about his superiors, including Williams, in exchange for a lighter sentence.

"The key is who else can he point a finger at higher up in the organization, if he’s willing to," said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. "That's an open question at this point."

The News reported in September that federal investigators were questioning UAW officials' use of almost $1 million of membership dues on condominiums, liquor, food and golf in California, where Gary Jones held annual conferences before becoming UAW president.

The charge, which could send Jewell to federal prison for up to five years, ends a two-year period of uncertainty as prosecutors and sources familiar with the investigation repeatedly identified Jewell as receiving illegal benefits from Fiat Chrysler. 

“We can confirm that we have had professional and productive discussions with the U.S. Attorney’s Office towards a fair and just resolution,” Jewell’s lawyer Michael P. Manley wrote in a text message to The News on Monday. “We are confident that when the facts of the case come out as it relates to Mr. Jewell, his decades-long reputation of honorable service to members of the UAW will remain intact.”

Manley declined comment when asked whether Jewell is cooperating with investigators. Prosecutors have labeled Fiat Chrysler, the UAW and the jointly operated UAW-Chrysler National Training Center as co-conspirators and have said the investigation is focused on numerous individuals and entities.

From at least 2014 to 2016, Jewell and others conspired to violate the Labor Management Relations Act by receiving more than $40,000 worth of travel, lodging and meals from people acting on behalf of Fiat Chrysler, according to court records.

“We are deeply saddened by today’s news of criminal filings and understand the frustrations our members feel when allegations like this are made about a former officer,” the UAW said in a statement Monday. “We have already implemented many reforms and enacted new policies to prevent any misuse of funds at the joint program centers from ever happening again, and we will continue to vigilantly review our practices to make sure any lax financial controls are identified and fixed going forward.” 

Jewell abruptly retired in January 2018 after The News linked him to the investigation and his home was searched by federal agents.

Federal prosecutors have said the union and Fiat Chrysler conspired from before 2009 through 2015 to violate the Labor Management Relations Act and that the automaker enabled nepotism to flourish at a blue-collar training center. The law prohibits employers or those working for them from paying, lending or delivering money or other valuables to officers or employees of labor organizations — and labor leaders from accepting such items.

The criminal case was filed four months after The News reported that Jewell tapped a worker training fund to pay for more than $10,000 worth of golf resort accommodations in Palm Springs and Disney World tickets and that federal agents were investigating the spending spree, according to multiple sources.

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Tour golf courses and resorts frequented by UAW officials in Palm Springs, Calif., where the union has spent more than $1 million in recent years. Robert Snell, The Detroit News

During his tenure, Jewell helped oversee the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center. The center is funded by Fiat Chrysler and officials who helped run the center received credit cards that ended up paying for personal luxuries.

The criminal filing Monday focused on Palm Springs and a string of illegal benefits that allegedly flowed to Jewell.

From 2015 to 2016, Jewell spent or approved spending $43,500 at a golf resort and on meals in Palm Springs, according to the criminal filing. The money came from Fiat Chrysler and violated federal labor law, prosecutors said.

Back in Detroit, Jewell and other union officials spent $15,407 on three dinners at the London Chop House, prosecutors said.

The criminal filing features cameos by some of the people convicted during the years-long investigation, including Jewell's assistant, Nancy Adams Johnson.

In January 2015, Johnson spent $4,587 at LG's Prime Steakhouse in Palm Springs. Jewell approved the expense, which was paid by the training center using money from Fiat Chrysler, according to the court filing.

The criminal case Monday reiterates that the UAW was plagued by corruption within the top ranks of the UAW from 2009 through 2016, a period covering the tenure of several presidents and vice presidents, including Williams and the late UAW Vice President General Holiefield.

"During the Holiefield leadership years, a 'culture of corruption' was continued and enhanced between Holiefield, his staff, and executives of (Fiat Chrysler) to violate the Labor Management Relations Act," prosecutors wrote in the court filing.

Holiefield retired in 2014 and died the following year. His widow, Monica Morgan Holiefield, was charged during the investigation, convicted of a tax crime and sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.

She was accused of receiving several illegal benefits, including $32,000 worth of flights, a $43,300 pool and $260,000 to pay off her mortgage.

Williams, meanwhile, retired amidst the corruption investigation last summer. He moved to the UAW's resort in northern Michigan, where the UAW is building a lakefront cottage for him as FBI agents question union leaders' spending of membership dues and money from Detroit's automakers on personal luxuries.

The UAW is using nonunion labor to build the Williams cottage, a money-saving move prompted by bids showing the project would have cost more than $1.3 million.

"Unless Norwood can deliver somebody like that on the Fiat Chrysler side or the union side, he's not of any value to the government," said Erik Gordon, a University of Michigan business professor. "For prosecutors to go back downstream and say they found another low-level person, there's no extra points for that."

rsnell@detroitnews.com 

(313) 222-2486

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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