The former president of the United Auto Workers Union, Gary Jones, on Wednesday pleaded guilty to embezzling union funds, becoming the highest-ranking union official to admit wrongdoing in a wide-ranging federal investigation that has involved more than a dozen senior union officials and at least three executives from Fiat Chrysler.
Under a cooperation agreement reached with federal prosecutors, Mr. Jones, 63, acknowledged using more than $1 million in union funds for vacation rentals, golf outings, clothing, liquor and expensive meals. According to prosecutors, Mr. Jones spent some $60,000 just on cigars and smoking paraphernalia.
The investigation has uncovered several loosely related schemes carried out by different union and corporate officials. In one case, a union vice president who once held a seat on the board of General Motors received kickbacks from the purchase of U.A.W. branded watches. In another, Fiat Chrysler’s top labor negotiator pleaded guilty to using union funds to buy a Ferrari and renovate his 6,800-square-foot home.
Details revealed in the investigation also led G.M. to file a lawsuit in November that accuses Fiat Chrysler of bribing union officials to get a leg up on G.M. in labor contracts. Fiat Chrysler has said the lawsuit is without merit.
The federal investigation into the U.A.W. began more than five years ago and is still active. Among those still under scrutiny is Mr. Jones’s predecessor, Dennis Williams. A plea agreement in February with a former aide to Mr. Jones indicated that a U.A.W. officer, whom court filings refer to as Official B, had urged using union money in ways that would benefit himself and other officials. Union officials have confirmed that Official B is Mr. Williams. The union also built a luxurious lakeside cabin for Mr. Williams at a U.A.W. resort about 250 miles north of Detroit.
The investigation has dealt a big blow to the U.A.W. The union’s president, Rory Gamble, has apologized for its failings and has pledged to reform it. While the union no longer has the power and political influence it wielded decades ago, it remains one of the largest labor groups in the country and is a key player in the U.S. auto industry. The U.A.W. represents about 400,000 workers and is the biggest union at G.M., Ford Motor and Fiat Chrysler.
“Former President Gary Jones and others abused their high-ranking positions and violated the trust of our members,” Mr. Gamble said in a statement Wednesday. “Their actions were selfish, immoral, and against everything we stand for as a union.”
The plea agreement marks a dramatic fall for Mr. Jones, who was elected president of the U.A.W. in 2018 and last year led workers through a 40-day strike against G.M. The strike yielded increased pay and benefits for temporary and workers with less seniority, a key union goal. In exchange, the union accepted G.M.’s decision to close a plant in Lordstown, Ohio, a move that frustrated some U.A.W. members.