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, Calif., pleaded guilty nearly four months after Gary Jones, his successor, admitted to 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.
Williams, who pleaded guilty Wednesday while appearing in a videoconference from an undisclosed location, portrayed himself as willfully ignorant about how Jones paid for regional conferences in Palm Springs, California, during a conspiracy that lasted from 2010-19.
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.
He was released on a $10,000 unsecured bond, and sentencing was set for Jan. 25.
“It was a little less contrite than I would have expected with him pointing the finger at others,” said Scott Houldieson, a Ford Motor Co. electrician at Chicago assembly plant. “It’s a betrayal of the membership that’s been covered up for quite some time now.”
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. Those items included private villas for months at a time, cigars, liquor and golf.
“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.”
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 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 2019. The conspiracy involved top leaders in the UAW assigned to Detroit and a regional office in Missouri.
Sources helped decipher pseudonyms used by the government to identify former UAW officials implicated in alleged racketeering activity. They are (clockwise from center): Gary Jones, aka “UAW Official A”; Dennis Williams, aka “UAW Official B”; Danny Trull, aka “UAW Official C”; Amy Loasching, aka “UAW Official D”; the late Jim Wells, aka “UAW Official E”; Edward “Nick” Robinson and Vance Pearson.
There were at least seven members of the conspiracy, prosecutors said. That includes Jones, who 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.
© 2020 The Detroit News