A four-year probe into union corruption kicked into high gear yesterday as the FBI raided the homes of two United Auto Workers presidents. Both Gary Jones and his predecessor Dennis Williams are targets in a Department of Justice investigation into payoffs that might upend the auto industry. It might also disrupt Big Labor’s political standing before the election, as the UAW is one of the biggest unions in the country, especially in the private sector.

CBS News called it a “dramatic escalation” last night:

Federal agents on Wednesday descended on the homes of top officials with one of the nation’s largest unions. FBI raids on the homes of Gary Jones — the current president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Dennis Williams his immediate predecessor — signaled a dramatic escalation of a four-year probe into illegal payments to union officials.

The corruption investigation has so far led to the convictions of eight people linked to the UAW and to Fiat-Chrysler involving bribes and kickbacks designed to influence the nation’s sixth largest union’s bargaining position at contract talks with automakers. …

In all, the FBI raided six locations in four states: Michigan, California, Missouri and Wisconsin. These operations could undermine the confidence of nearly 160,000 UAW members in their negotiating team at the beginning of a new round of contract talks.

“Obviously something is going on and it needs to be cleaned up, period,” UAW employee Joseph Johnson said.

The FBI isn’t talking about what they found, but the neighbors are. USA Today reports that one of Jones’ quick-thinking neighbors grabbed some binoculars at the start of the raid to see what law enforcement wanted. “Wads of cash” was part of their haul:

One neighbor, 47-year-old J. Kevin Telepo, became so intrigued that he grabbed his Swarovski binoculars, sat in his dining room and zoomed in on Jones’ garage. That’s where he saw FBI agents combing through all sorts of stuff: cash, a golf bag and what appeared to be a safe, he said.

Telepo said he saw the agents counting “wads” of cash. He texted his wife and neighbors about the raid.

“FBI raiding neighbor’s house” read the first text.

“What did he do?” responded his wife.

He wrote back: “Not sure. FBI & IRS. Pile of cash in garage.”

Until now, both Fiat Chrysler and the UAW have insisted that the corruption scandal only involved “a few bad actors.” The DoJ has secured convictions on seven lower-level people, but this looks as if the FBI suspects that the corruption goes all the way to the top — in the UAW, at least. Jones, in fact, won election as an outsider who would clean up the UAW:

Throughout the two years since the corruption probe became public, the UAW and FCA have insisted that the illegal payment scheme involved just a few bad actors.

Jones, a certified public accountant, was elected president last year. Previously based in Kansas City, Missouri, as a regional director for the union, he was seen as an outsider who could help the organization move past the payments scandal.

But federal prosecutors have aggressively expanded the corruption probe.

If this goes to the top of the UAW, then it’s likely to go to the top of the automakers, too. That should have everyone nervous, especially the workers. They have a contract negotiation going on at the moment, with their current contract expiring in mid-September. If union leadership has been taking payoffs, good luck getting that contract passed by the rank and file.

Others see a more nefarious reason for the “dramatic escalation,” and it’s spelled T-R-U-M-P. Still, they want new leadership at the UAW anyway:

UAW member Sean Crawford, who works at GM’s Flint Assembly plant, said the news will have a “really negative impact” on bargaining.

“Call me cynical but I feel the Trump administration willfully timed this to coincide with our negotiations so that the union would lose faith in the leadership,” said Crawford. “We’re getting ready to go into one of the biggest negotiations of our lifetime and we’re possibly going to lose faith in our union.”

Crawford said the union leadership is to blame and should take responsibility for its actions in the corruption scandal.

This escalation could put one of the biggest private-sector unions on the sidelines as the 2020 election heats up, so conspiracy theories about Trump ordering the expansion may gain some credit. It’ll be tough to lay the timing on Trump, though, since the investigation started well before he was elected. The UAW might still adopt that as a defense, but if the FBI hauled out “wads of cash” from the homes of its present and past presidents, it’s not going to stick.