The unfinished business of the United Auto Workers scandal is nearing its end. A week ago, on November 17, Joe Ashton, former vice president of the UAW’s General Motors Department, was sentenced in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan to 30 months in prison for receiving over $250,000 in illegal bribes and kickbacks from a union vendor, and for conspiring with two fellow union officials to launder the proceeds. He had pleaded guilty last December. Several ranking UAW officials, including its two previous presidents, already have pleaded guilty to embezzlement, racketeering and tax fraud charges. The actions follow a joint investigation by the FBI, the IRS and the Labor Department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards and Office of Inspector General.
Ashton, now 72, a resident of Ocean View, N.J., is a retired UAW vice president. He now is also one 15 defendants convicted of financial crimes related to internal union corruption or to illegal payoffs to union officials from industry officials, part of a multi-agency federal investigation. The first phase of the probe focused on a quid pro quo scheme in which certain Chrysler executives, through a company-funded employee training center, funneled millions of dollars to UAW officials in return for dropping certain demands at collective bargaining sessions. The current phase, which focused on the union’s GM Department, came to public attention with raids in four states by FBI and IRS agents in August 2019 seeking evidence of an alleged scheme involving about $2 million in bribes and kickbacks, plus embezzlement, money-laundering and tax evasion. It turned out that then-UAW President Gary Jones, along with his immediate predecessor, Dennis Williams, knowingly had shared in the proceeds. Jones pleaded guilty this June; Williams pleaded guilty in September.
The case against Joe Ashton was convincing enough to induce him to plead guilty last December to conspiring with two other ex-union officials, Michael Grimes and Jeffrey Pietrzyk, to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from union vendors via the now-defunct joint UAW-GM training center known as the Center for Human Resources (CHR). Grimes was sentenced to 28 months in prison; Pietrzyk is still awaiting sentencing. According to prosecutors, Ashton was in on the scam. He and his two co-conspirators demanded and accepted payments from a Philadelphia-based UAW vendor in exchange for securing and maintaining a $3.9 million contract to provide 58,000 custom watches for union members employed by General Motors. Ashton demanded more than $250,000 in kickbacks on that contract. Yet after the watches arrived, the defendants left them sitting in a storage room for over five years rather than distribute them. In addition, Ashton also conspired to launder the proceeds through various financial transactions. Two other union officials also pleaded guilty as a result of this phase of the investigation: former UAW Region 5 Director Vance Pearson and former UAW Midwest Citizenship and Legislative Committee (CAP) President Edward “Nick” Robinson. Each is awaiting sentencing.
Federal officials are satisfied that justice has been done in the case of Ashton. “Joseph Ashton illegally used his power and influence to benefit himself, and he caused long-lasting damage to the hard-working members of the UAW,” said U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider. “Ashton wasted almost $4 million that could have used to train UAW members, and his crimes led to the closing of the UAW-GM training center and the loss of many training center jobs.” Irene Lindow, Special Agent-in-Charge for the Chicago Region of the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General, similarly stated: “Joseph Ashton abused his position with the International United Auto Workers Union (UAW) by demanding and accepting over $250,000 in kickbacks from a UAW vendor. Instead of bargaining in the best interests of the UAW members, he chose to personally enrich himself.”