Howes: Fed corruption probe weighing on UAW leadership

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

You know the widened federal investigation into possible corruption at joint training centers is deadly serious when United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams opens a roundtable with a prepared statement.

Written by lawyers, most likely, because they’re keen to avoid riling Justice Department investigators any more than they already are. Williams, one of the more voluble to hold the union’s top job in a long time, implied as much Wednesday.

With good reason. The count so far: A deceased UAW vice president, General Holiefield, is implicated in a scheme to siphon some $4.5 million from training funds supplied by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. A retired union vice president, Joe Ashton, last week resigned his seat on General Motors Co.’s board of directors because “the investigation was a distraction,” Williams said, attributing the characterization to Ashton.

And Vice President Norwood Jewell, head of the union’s FCA department, is retiring at the end of the month, six months before his term ends at the union’s convention in June. His name emerged in August when The Detroit News reported he received a $2,180 shotgun purchased with training center funds.

The shotgun was part of a broader review by federal agents of questionable spending by UAW leaders accused of using training center credit cards to buy designer purses and $1,000 shoes, among other things. “The ones at the” UAW-FCA National Training Center “with the credit cards were let go,” Williams said.

Who, exactly, the union won’t say. None of it — including the guilty pleas already entered by less prominent training center officials — is a ringing endorsement of current leadership or the union with a proud history largely free of financial scandal.

Until now. This mushrooming mess has the potential to weaken the union’s moral authority and tarnish an entire generation of top UAW leadership. They’re many of the same people who helped steer the venerable union, a cornerstone of Detroit’s auto industry, back from the brink of collapse amid the Great Recession.

“I don’t see any reason to have a cloud over anyone at this point,” Williams said. We’ll see. The government clearly is not finished with its tour through the joint training centers, and their budgets, in an effort to identify who else might have enriched themselves at the expense of union members.

The egregious excesses inside the UAW-FCA joint training center prompted federal investigators to widen their scrutiny to include the joint centers funded by GM and Ford Motor Co. — a fact The News first reported last month and Williams confirmed in his statements.

“We will never tolerate this type of misconduct,” Williams read from his statement. “Based on the information that we have, we believe several former UAW officials acted in clear violation of UAW policy. This is not acceptable, and the actions of a few individuals should not be held against the entire union and its membership.”

In answer to a question, he continued: “Right now I don’t want to comment. I want to respect two things: one, I want to respect the fact that we have an internal investigation, and I also want to respect the fact that there’s due process within the federal government.”

Meaning the feds aren’t done. Investigators have expressed interest in Ashton, appointed to GM’s board in 2014 by the union’s retiree health care trust, and Cindy Estrada, his successor in charge of the union’s GM department, sources familiar with the investigation told The News.

The other big question: Did all this self-dealing, greased with corporate money earmarked for training union members, corrupt the bargaining process and shortchange members even as leaders prospered in ways the rank-and-file could not see?

Anything close to “yes,” backed with evidence marshaled by federal investigators, would devastate the union’s credibility with its own, change the balance of power with Detroit’s automakers and compromise the union’s organizing efforts.

Nowhere would that compromise be more acutely felt than inside foreign-owned automakers and suppliers operating inside the United States — the very people the union needs if it hopes to reverse the decades-long membership decline in its defining industry.

If that’s a price the union ends up paying, the mounting evidence suggests it’ll have some of its own leaders to thank for the debacle.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.