Fraud claims cast shadow on UAW’s General Holiefield

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

He started as a factory grunt, building Chryslers at the Jefferson Avenue Plant, and now here he was at a shimmery Hollywood event with Halle Berry rushing by.

General Holiefield, UAW vice president and NAACP national board member, greets actress Halle Berry, who won an Image Award in 2011. He died of cancer in 2015.

A commercial break was ending at the NAACP Image Awards in 2011, and Berry was being whisked back to her seat. Suddenly, as thousands watched, she stopped to talk to General Holiefield.

General was his name, not his title, but he was as smooth and confident as Captain Morgan. He was the vice president who ran the UAW’s Chrysler department and UAW Chrysler was sponsoring the program, so he was consorting with the swells, trading phone numbers with Cicely Tyson and accepting compliments on his dance moves from producer Randy Jackson.

Holiefield would leave the union hurriedly in June 2014 and die of pancreatic cancer nine months later. His memory would be resurrected last week when his widow and his ever-so-friendly adversary at Fiat Chrysler were indicted over a scheme in which the three of them and others allegedly helped themselves to more than $2 million of the company’s money, allocated to the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center.

But that night in Los Angeles, he was just the subject of curiosity, not an investigation: Who’s that big guy, and what did he say to stop a glamorous actress in her tracks?

Chuck Bennett, The Detroit News’ society columnist, provided the answer. “I just told her that I was captivated by her beauty and acting talent,” Holiefield told him, “but her community involvement as well.”

Holiefield was a charmer that way, according to those who knew him — a gentle soul, 6-foot-3 and a few meals either side of 300 pounds, whose bulk was somehow comforting rather than imposing.

“A really great guy,” says Bennett.

“Engaging and warm,” says Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

“Affable and charismatic,” says Greg Mathis, a retired 36th District Court judge and the star of television’s long-running “Judge Mathis.”

A thief, says the U.S. government.

The 42-page grand jury indictment unsealed last week says that Holiefield, his wife Monica Morgan-Holiefield and his supposed opponent across the bargaining table, former FCA vice president Alphons Iacobelli, conspired to defraud the federal government and contravene the National Labor Relations Act. The FBI and IRS investigation also names Jerome Durden of Rochester, the controller of the training center from 2008-15, who allegedly parceled out the stolen money to his co-conspirators.

The details are the stuff sneers are made of. For the Holiefields, first-class plane tickets and a $262,219 check to scrub out the mortgage on their large house in Harrison Township. For Iacobelli, a Ferrari and a pair of $37,500 gold Mont Blanc pens.

Monica Morgan-Holiefield

Morgan-Holiefield is a photographer, and even before the couple’s lavish Italian wedding and globetrotting honeymoon in 2012, she would take pictures at the Image Awards ceremonies. Iacobelli, 57, representing Chrysler, would dance at his seat: “Lenny Kravitz,” he exulted one year, “is the real, real deal!”

Holiefield would make friends.

He didn’t always. Though prosecutors declined to file charges, he was arrested in 2011 in what was called a “domestic violence matter” at the Macomb Township home he shared with his first wife, Marlene. There were rumblings within the UAW that he was excessively cozy with Fiat Chrysler, and that he had agreed too readily to a change in work shifts that allowed four 10-hour days.

In Hollywood, he chatted effortlessly with actors Samuel L. Jackson and Sidney Poitier, and Sandra Oh asked to have her picture taken with him.

“I rarely approach the superstars,” says Mathis, laughing. “If I do, they blow me off. In fact, Halle Berry has blown me off before.”

She made time, though, for a kid from Inkster who grew up not knowing his first name.

Holiefield went by Robert until he turned 18 and needed his birth certificate so he could apply for a driver’s license. Authoritative names were more or less a family tradition — a grandfather was named Caesar — but as Holiefield told Hour Detroit in 2010, his father wanted to protect him from teasing.

In perhaps a bit of foreshadowing, Holiefield’s family continued to call him “Rob.” Holiefield, however, named one of his three children General Jr.

The UAW confirms that General Jr. works for the union and is assigned to the joint program training center his father purportedly stole from, which is nearly as awkward as the timing of the indictments. Workers at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, finish voting Friday on whether to join the union.

The older General Holiefield became active after he was fired from a job driving hi-los at Chrysler’s Detroit Axle Plant and the UAW helped reclaim his job. By 1993, he was president of Local 961, where a successor remembered him preaching the gospel of diligence.

“One of his favorite echoes was telling people they had to come to work because there was work that needed to be done,” Edward May told The News in 2006. That was the year Holiefield was first elected a national vice president; re-election followed four years later.

As Mathis points out, any money stolen did not come from union dues, even if it was intended for the training of members.

“That’s a big difference,” he says. He goes back at least a decade with Holiefield and and 35 years with Morgan-Holiefield, and “I don’t believe based on his and Monica’s character that they stole anything.”

If they’re guilty, Mathis says, “I believe their motivation would have been a sincere desire to help others, because that’s the kind of people they are.”

UAW veterans weighing in online see Holiefield more as a hood than as Robin Hood.

“Holiefield was a disgrace,” wrote Paul Wohlfarth, a Chrysler retiree from Ottawa Lake. “When the General was alive he reportedly spent a million dollars on his wedding, and where was the wedding? Italy, home of FCA.”

Morgan-Holiefield, who sometimes freelanced photos for The News, sent along a wedding picture in October 2012 featuring herself in a beaded silk organza wedding gown and her new husband in black tails, riding in a gondola on a Venetian canal. They went on to Naples, Rome, Athens, Istanbul and Barcelona.

Holiefield’s salary at the time is undetermined, though the three current UAW vice presidents earn $137,718 apiece.

Hackel says he never heard anything cautionary about Holiefield until after his death at age 61 on March 9, 2015. Holiefield had entered hospice care four days earlier at Harper Hospital, and Morgan-Holiefield said at the time that he had asked her to buy sweets and baked goods for hospital staffers and fellow patients.

“He was always caring about people,” she said. “He never thought about himself.”

Nearly a year later, in an essay in BLAC Detroit, she credited Holiefield with saving Chrysler during the 2009 bankruptcy negotiations with the federal government. When no one thanked him, she wrote, “he’d say, ‘I don’t expect any thanks. I get my blessings from God.’”

“He appeared to be a guy who was really there for the organization, for the worker,” Hackel says. While their relationship was professional, not social — Hackel was surprised to be asked to join U.S. Rep. John Conyers, U.S. Judge Damon Keith, Mathis and a long list of other notables speaking at the funeral — he says Holiefield always greeted him with a hug.

Hackel says Holiefield was generous with his time. Bennett says Holiefield was also generous with his money, though not ostentatiously; when he picked up a tab or donated to a cause, he did it quietly.

He was stylish, Bennett says, but not flamboyant. He liked to ride motorcycles and strum the bass guitar he taught himself to play. He was a target shooter, and that led to a near-tragedy: in December 2013, months after he’d been marginalized by the UAW for assigning photo contracts to his wife, he and some friends went to an indoor gun range in Roseville.

Cleaning his Desert Eagle semi-automatic pistol in his kitchen afterward, he accidentally shot Morgan-Holiefield in the abdomen. There were cleaning materials on the table and witnesses in the room, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to reckless use of a firearm, a misdemeanor.

She forgave him, and they went on with their lives.

Now come the FBI and the IRS, and they are less forgiving entities. It’s a case that could be the stuff of screenplays, and there might even be a role for Halle Berry — but as much as Holiefield loved Hollywood, the ending might not be one he’d care to see.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn