Last week’s legal settlement between the U.S. Justice Department and what was formerly Fiat Chrysler Automobiles might have looked much different had former FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne not died in 2018.
FCA pleaded guilty Monday, March 1, to conspiring to violate the National Labor Relations Act, admitting that it funneled more than $3.5 million in illegal payments to officers of the UAW between 2009 and 2016.
Marchionne was FCA’s very-hands-on CEO for the entire period of the conspiracy, and as any supplier during those years could attest, the company did not spend $1 million — let alone $3.5 million — without Marchionne’s approval. It strains credulity to believe that someone further down FCA’s org chart could have, for example, approved paying off former UAW Vice President General Holiefield’s $262,000 mortgage without the CEO’s blessing. Had he lived, it is likely that the same dogged federal investigators who have won guilty pleas from 15 union and company officials would have put Marchionne in the dock as well.
In retrospect, the results of the federal investigation cast an unflattering pall over the uncharacteristically warm relations between Marchionne and former UAW President Dennis Williams. Their embraces in 2015 at the start and end of contract talks unsettled many union members.
Marchionne’s successor, Mike Manley, deserves credit for having cleaned up the various legal messes left by his former boss. The automaker paid $40 million in 2019 to settle Securities and Exchange Commission allegations of inflating its monthly sales figures. And that was after a 2015 consent decree with NHTSA over how FCA processed recalls that included the biggest civil penalty the agency ever doled out.
Marchionne’s untimely death ensured that only history will judge the man whose business savvy unquestionably saved Chrysler, but who probably violated federal law in doing so.