Former United Auto Workers Vice President Joe Ashton, who also held a seat on the General Motors Board of Directors, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for his part in a scheme that stole $4 million earmarked for training and education of union members employed by the automaker.
Judge Bernard Friedman said during a zoom hearing that while Ashton had done a lot of good during his long career, his actions, including steering contracts to preferred vendors and accepting cash kickbacks, betrayed the trust UAW members had placed in him.
“Union leaders need to be honorable at all times,” said Friedman, recounting the loyalty and faith members have had in the union throughout the years. As part of the sentence, Ashton also agreed to forfeit $250,000 he received in kickbacks.
Ashton, who pleaded guilty back in March to the federal criminal charges filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Michigan, acknowledged he had done wrong. “I have betrayed the trust UAW members had in me,” he said.
Frances Carlson, the assistant U.S. attorney, noted that while Ashton’s attorney argued that Ashton steered the contract for watches purchased by the UAW-GM Center for Human Resources to help friends, who had suffered a financial setback, he also had accepted kickbacks for three years.
“Joe Ashton had it all. He had power, influence and prestige. But he wanted more,” she said, adding his actions damaged the UAW, union members and his own family. Even the UAW-GM Center for Human Resources has been disbanded, Carlson noted.
The CHR, with the support from senior UAW officer and GM executives, was built in the early 2000s on the banks of the Detroit River with a lavish education center with gym, 350-seat auditorium, enclosed parking and extensive security. GM and the UAW agreed during the 2019 contract negotiations agreed to sell the center, which had become engulfed in the scandal.
The CHR’s riverfront property was recently sold to a group of outside investors for an undisclosed sum.
Ashton became a UAW vice president in 2010 and head of the UAW’s GM Department after a long career in various union posts on the East Coast. When he retired in 2014, he was nominated to fill the seat on the GM board, representing the stake in GM held by the trust responsible for the healthcare of UAW retirees.
In imposing the sentence, Friedman said he had fully considered the ill-health of Ashton’s wife who suffers from MS and the impact on his 10 grandchildren, including one who has survived a bout with cancer with support from his grandfather, as well as Ashton’s own health issues.
Ashton will not have to begin serving his sentence until June because of the threat to his health posed by COVID-19 pandemic.
So far 15 union officials or officers, have pleaded guilty in a probe of the union and its relations with Detroit’s three automakers that dates back more than five years but picked up momentum after a federal grand jury unsealed indictment against UAW officials and executives from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in summer 2017.