Detroit — Former United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams pleaded guilty Wednesday to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the union, giving federal prosecutors a second landmark conviction in a years-long crackdown on auto industry corruption.
Williams, 67, of Corona, California, pleaded guilty nearly four months after his successor, UAW President Gary Jones, admitted helping steal more than $1 million from rank-and-file workers. They are the highest-ranking union leaders convicted in a corruption scandal that has pushed one of the nation’s most powerful unions to the brink of federal takeover.
Williams, who resigned his membership Sept. 18, is the 15th person convicted of a crime following an investigation that has revealed labor leaders and auto executives broke federal labor laws, stole union funds and received bribes and illegal benefits from union contractors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV executives.
He was released on $10,000 unsecured bond, and sentencing was set for Jan. 25.
A stone-faced Williams, dressed in a black suit, black tie and white shirt, participated in the videoconference from an undisclosed location due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has temporarily closed federal court.
“Do you want to plead guilty today?” U.S. District Judge Paul Borman asked Williams.
“Yes, your honor,” Williams responded.
The plea hearing marked a rare public appearance for Williams and revealed a rift between the two former presidents and shifting blame for the corruption scandal.
During a long speech, Williams blamed Jones for covering up the spending of more than $1 million in union funds on luxury items during UAW junkets in Palm Springs, California. Those items included private villas for months at a time, cigars, liquor and golf.
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.
The Detroit News
“I knew in many cases such as golf and cigars, that there was no good-faith basis to think these expenses were for the benefit of our union,” Williams said while reading from a statement.
Williams said he asked Jones about the expenses.
“He simply told me everything was above board,” Williams said.
“I made a deliberate and conscious decision not to press the matter, even though I strongly suspected that if I looked into how Gary Jones was funding those expenses, I would find union funds were being misused.
“I deliberately looked away,” he added.
Williams recounted his more than 40-year UAW career that saw him climb from the ranks of a welder to serving approximately 1 million active and retired workers and their families.
“That is why it is especially painful and humbling here today,” Williams told the judge. “I held a position of trust. I know that my actions and my failures to act abused that trust and hurt the union that I loved.
“I want to apologize to the court, my family and to each and every hard-working UAW member paying dues.”
Williams was last heard from during a series of nationwide raids by a team of federal agents from the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and Labor Department. He was held at gunpoint, ordered to lie down and handcuffed after confronting federal agents who arrived to search his $610,000 California home in August 2019.
Williams also has agreed to forfeit several items seized during the raid and has repaid more than $56,000. Those seized items include a set of Titleist golf clubs, clothing and golf merchandise. He also is required to pay taxes to the IRS.
The criminal investigation is ongoing. Prosecutors and UAW leaders are negotiating a possible deal that could include prolonged federal oversight aimed at eliminating corruption within the union and implementing reforms.
The hearing comes one month after Williams, who headed the UAW from 2014-18, was charged with conspiracy to embezzle union funds, a felony punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
The UAW had paid Williams’ legal team at least $320,912 but stopped payments in August after most of the legal work had concluded. He later was charged, and the union’s governing International Executive Board demanded his resignation or said it would seek to remove him under the UAW constitution, Rothenberg said in a statement.
“Under policies of the UAW, including those enacted by current UAW President Rory L. Gamble and our International Executive Board,” he wrote, “Williams will be required to repay the UAW for all legal fees paid by the union on his behalf or face legal action, and Williams will be required to repay any further union funds he wrongly took or misspent.”
Petitions by rank-and-file members dating to at least last October had called for Williams’ membership to be revoked.
The executive board ignored the request because he had not been charged with wrongdoing at the time.
Scott Houldieson, a union member and chair of the dissident United All Workers for Democracy caucus, appealed the decision in June the decision to the four-member independent Public Review Board, which on Sept. 24 remanded the case to the board, stating “enforcement of the Ethical Practices Codes is not dependent upon whether the government has brought criminal charges against a union officer or member; rather, the Union has an independent duty to regulate itself under the Codes,” according to a news release from the UAWD this week. By then, however, Williams had resigned.
The criminal filing capped a prolonged period of uncertainty for Williams, who retired in June 2018. He was publicly implicated in the corruption scandal the next month when The Detroit News named Williams as the unidentified UAW official accused in a federal court filing of illegally ordering underlings to offload entertainment and travel expenses to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
The conspiracy outlined by federal prosecutors started in 2010, when Williams was the UAW’s secretary/treasurer, and lasted until September. The conspiracy involved top leaders in the UAW assigned to Detroit and a regional office in Missouri.
Williams and his co-conspirators spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lavish entertainment, private villas, meals, cigars, golf and more during UAW junkets, prosecutors said. And the union bosses hid the expense from members.
There were at least seven members of the conspiracy, prosecutors said. That includes Jones, who pleaded guilty earlier this year and is awaiting a federal prison sentence. Other members include Jones aides Vance Pearson, who oversaw the UAW’s regional office in Missouri, and Nick Robinson, who worked at that office.
Prosecutors use letters to refer to three other members of the conspiracy who have not been charged. The News has previously identified them as: Former Jones aide Danny Trull, aka “UAW Official C.” Former Williams aide Amy Loasching, aka “UAW Official D,” whose home in Wisconsin was raided by federal agents last year.
The late Missouri regional Director Jim Wells, aka “UAW Official E.” Wells died in 2012.
“It is my sincere hope that the convictions obtained over the course of this investigation have begun the process of ensuring honest leadership takes the helm of one of the most important labor unions in this country,” said Steven M. D’Antuono, special agent in charge of the FBI in Detroit, in a statement.
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