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Detroit — Norwood Jewell, the disgraced former United Auto Workers vice president, pleaded guilty to breaking federal labor laws Tuesday, becoming the highest-ranking labor leader convicted in an ongoing investigation of corruption within the U.S. auto industry.

The plea to one count of labor conspiracy capped a prolonged downward spiral for one of the most powerful leaders of the UAW but spares him from cooperating with an ongoing investigation that has embroiled his former boss, retired UAW President Dennis Williams.

As prosecutors spent the last two years securing the convictions of six former UAW officials and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles executives, Jewell was repeatedly referenced in court records as living a luxury lifestyle, including a coast-to-coast spree of $7,000 steakhouse dinners, $30,000 cigar and wine parties and months-long stays at California golf resorts, all bankrolled by Fiat Chrysler executives intent on wringing concessions from him at the bargaining table.

With a pinky ring on his left hand and a grim expression dominating a face notable for a trademark Chevron mustache, Jewell, 61, stood before U.S. District Judge Paul Borman and admitted receiving thousands of dollars worth of illegal benefits from Fiat Chrysler executives.

"I wasn't perfect," Jewell told the judge. "I was getting stuff from Chrysler and I can't do that."

Though the Swartz Creek resident could spend up to five years in prison Aug. 5, prosecutors have agreed to recommend a 15-month sentence.

Jewell silently shook his head when reporters asked for comment.

"It's a sad day," Jewell's lawyer Michael P. Manley told reporters outside federal court. "The man is a legend and has left a great legacy for the UAW."

That legacy won't involve helping federal agents with the ongoing investigation. Jewell was not required to cooperate as part of his plea deal.

Prosecutors might not need Jewell.

Six Fiat Chrysler and UAW officials convicted in the scandal have cooperated in hopes of receiving shorter prison sentences. That list includes several who helped Jewell oversee the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center, including former Fiat Chrysler Vice President Alphons Iacobelli and Jewell's top assistant, Nancy Adams Johnson.

Adams Johnson told prosecutors that Williams, the UAW president, directed subordinates to use funds from Detroit’s automakers to pay for union travel, meals and entertainment.

Williams has not been charged with any crimes during the ongoing investigation.

"It could be helpful to Williams and others that they don’t have a high-level, UAW vice president cooperating against them," said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. "But the government has others who have cooperated."

Jewell's guilty plea secured a high-profile conviction for federal prosecutors, who have labeled the UAW, Fiat Chrysler and the jointly operated UAW-Chrysler National Training Center as co-conspirators in a years-long scandal designed to corrupt the bargaining process.

"Mr. Jewell’s criminal actions were an effort to enrich himself and his colleagues at the expense of dues-paying UAW members and denied those same hard-working men and women the assurance that union leadership was bargaining in their best interests," Timothy Slater, special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit office, said in a statement.

Fiat Chrysler executives funneled cash and benefits in hopes of obtaining contract concessions from union executives who prosecutors say betrayed blue-collar workers.

The corruption was entrenched by the time Jewell was elected vice president in 2014, according to prosecutors and Manley.

"When you get put into a cesspool," Jewell's lawyer told reporters, "you're destined to fail."

The illegal benefits Jewell received did not influence the bargaining process, Manley said.

"This is a troubling moment for our organization, and our members are appropriately angry and frustrated," the UAW said in a statement. "Our members will always be our highest authority, and so we pledge to continue to change the way that we do business."

Jewell headed the union's Fiat Chrysler department until abruptly retiring last year after being identified as a target of the investigation.

Jewell was charged with labor conspiracy March 18 and accused along with other UAW officials of going on a $100,000 spending spree paid for by Fiat Chrysler officials.

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 from Fiat Chrysler that was supposed to train blue-collar workers.

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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

The case illustrates how the policy allegedly implemented by Williams saved the UAW money. Union officials spent more than $58,000 at steakhouses and golfing in Palm Springs and Detroit — and Fiat Chrysler executives picked up the bill, authorities allege.

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.

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.

Before Jewell appeared in court Tuesday, the UAW revealed officials have spent more than $1.5 million in member dues since 2015 defending the union from allegations that labor leaders pocketed bribes and conspired to violate federal labor laws.

The union's annual Labor Department filing reveals a portion of the cost of a scandal that has bruised the UAW's reputation, raised questions about the sanctity of labor negotiations and exposed union executives who betrayed rank-and-file workers by receiving bribes from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles officials who tried to secure contract concessions.

"We’ve been forced to pay these legal fees because of the actions of people who’ve pled guilty," UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg wrote in an email to The News. "These expenses are lawyers representing the union. It is President (Gary) Jones' goal to make reforms that will prevent this kind of expenditure from being needed in the future."

The filing, entered Friday, showed Chicago law firm Cotsirilos, Tighe, Streicker, Poulos & Campbell has been paid at least $1,489,233 since 2015.

That's the year the federal investigation emerged publicly when prosecutors filed liens on the homes of Iacobelli and Monica Morgan-Holiefield, the widow of former UAW Vice President General Holiefield.

The firm's bills started small before ballooning in summer 2017 as prosecutors started charging four former UAW officials and Morgan-Holiefield.

The UAW's legal bills are expected to continue to climb amid the ongoing investigation.

"(The training center) sits at the epicenter of a massive conspiracy to corrupt the labor management process, as the conduit of choice for illegal payments between its parents, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles ... and the UAW," Assistant U.S. Attorney Erin Shaw wrote in a federal court filing.

rsnell@detroitnews.com 

(313) 222-2486

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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