DETROIT — Dennis Williams, the 11th president of the UAW, who stressed financial discipline and railed against corruption while simultaneously bilking union members out of more than $132,000, was sentenced Tuesday to 21 months in federal prison.
The UAW’s president from 2014 to 2018, Williams is the highest-ranking UAW member to be sentenced in a yearslong corruption probe that has netted 15 convictions and put the UAW under a six-year period of government oversight. Williams pleaded guilty in September to embezzlement and spending hundreds of thousands of member dollars on trips to Palm Springs, Calif., golf outings, fancy dinners and other luxuries.
Prosecutors had called for a two-year sentence, while defense attorneys had argued for a reduced sentence of one year and one day. In addition to the prison time, Williams was ordered to one year of supervised release as well as a $10,000 fine.
Williams, 68, appeared before U.S. District Judge Paul Borman via Zoom from San Diego. He apologized to the court but also placed blame on others.
“I stand here before you today with great regret,” he said. “I’m more than the actions that brought me before you in this case … I take full responsibility for my actions, but many of the UAW cases you have before you I knew nothing about.”
He said he felt “foolish and embarrassed” when he took his successor, Gary Jones, at his word that certain expenses were above board. Jones has also pleaded guilty to embezzlement and awaits sentencing.
“Former UAW Member and President Dennis Williams has rightfully been sentenced today for his crimes that put his personal and self-interest above that of our members and this union,” the UAW said in a statement. “These serious crimes violated the oath of UAW officers and they violated the trust of UAW officers to handle our members’ sacred dues money.”
Williams last year returned about $56,000 in travel expenses to the union following an internal review of expenditures, and his attorneys said Tuesday he’s also repaid the union an additional $76,403 for rental properties, golf, meals, alcohol and cigars. He has also repaired the Internal Revenue Service $15,459 for taxes on those expenses.
American success story?
Prosecutors this month called for a two-year sentence, noting Williams “exploited the hundreds of thousands of UAW members that he led” and that “the reverberations of these actions will last years, if not decades.”
His attorney, in arguing for a sentence of one year and one day, pointed to his prior years of service to the union.
“Mr. Williams’ life — until his conviction — was a great American success story,” attorney Terra Reynolds said.
Williams submitted to the court a number of letters from friends to help argue for leniency. One such letter came from actor Danny Glover, who praised his “generosity and openness” and “devotion to the UAW.”
Still, attorneys tried to blame his subordinates, including Jones, for leading the embezzlement scheme tied to improper expenses at conferences in Palm Springs, Calif.
“While Mr. Williams ‘approved the yearly LM-2 reports,’ those reports did not include itemized conference expenses,” Reynolds wrote. “As such, neither Mr. Williams nor any of the other UAW personnel responsible for reviewing and approving the reports could have identified the expenses. This was by design — a design set forth by Jones.”
In requesting a lighter sentence, Williams also claimed that he “chose to [forgo] substantial personal compensation associated with sitting on corporate boards,” which was “the most concrete example of [his] true priorities.”
Prosecutors pointed out, however, that Williams was prohibited from accepting personal compensation over $1,500 per year from third-party employment, including service on a board of directors, as part of longstanding UAW ethics rules.
Williams, a 40-year union veteran, rose to the UAW’s most powerful position in 2014 hoping to bring a disciplined, business-oriented mindset to the union. He restructured the UAW’s regions, cut costs, instituted budgets by departments and balanced the union’s books. UAW membership rose by 27,405 from 2014 to 2017, the last full year he was in office.
But during that time, prosecutors say, Williams was living large on his members’ dime. Among the alleged indiscretions, Williams racked up tens of thousands of dollars staying at a villa in Palm Springs months at a time and paid with UAW funds.
According to documents included in Williams’ sentencing memo, Jones told prosecutors that he would book a villa for Williams for up to four months at a time, and after he fulfilled “largely ceremonial duties” at the union’s regional conference, he “spent his time as he pleased, which included a daily standing tee time at the Indian Canyons Golf Course.”
Prosecutors noted that Jones — who himself admitted to embezzlement and racketeering charges — “believes that the four months of golf for a one week conference was obtusely excessive.”
Williams also accepted golf clubs, clothing, cigars, Crown Royal XR whiskey and other expensive liquor during his time in California.
As the corruption scandal began to unfold while he was still president, Williams railed against some former union officials whom he will soon join behind bars.
“We will never tolerate this type of misconduct,” Williams said during a December 2017 briefing with journalists. “Based on the information we have, we believe several former UAW officials acted in a 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.”
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