Former UAW exec charged in corruption probe

Joe Ashton

In this June 17, 2010 file photo, United Auto Workers then-Vice President Joe Ashton addresses the autoworker’s convention in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

DETROIT (AP) — A retired vice president of the United Auto Workers union on Wednesday became the 13th person to be charged in a federal investigation of alleged corruption at the union and auto companies.

Joe Ashton is accused of receiving thousands of dollars in kickbacks from a contractor who made watches for union members. The 58,000 watches are still in storage five years later.

Ashton was charged Wednesday with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiring to commit money laundering. The case is filed in Detroit federal court as a “criminal information,” which means a guilty plea is expected.

The Associated Press left a message seeking comment from Ashton’s lawyer, Jerry Ballarotto.

Ashton was a powerful official who headed the UAW’s General Motors department. He also was a member of the GM board, but he resigned in 2017 after being implicated in the widening union corruption probe.

According to court papers filed by prosecutors Wednesday, Ashton and two other officials of a joint GM-UAW training center, Michael Grimes and Jeffrey Pietrzyk, used their positions to get hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks from 2012 until July 2016 in a scheme involving the purchase of $3.97 million worth of watches.

Ashton convinced a Philadelphia chiropractor identified only as “Vendor B” to loan $250,000 to a construction company owned by an Ashton associate in 2010, prosecutors allege. Two years later, the company stopped making payments on the loan.

Prosecutors say Ashton then proposed a way for the chiropractor to be repaid, by setting up a company that would supply the UAW with 58,000 watches. The chiropractor found a company to provide the watches, with Ashton taking part in the design, production and pricing. They say he negotiated a deal for the chiropractor to buy the watches for $2.29 million, or $42.90 per watch. Then Ashton told the chiropractor to submit a bid to Pietrzyk for a total price of $3.97 million, or $68.50 per watch, the documents allege.

Ashton and Pietrzyk steered the watch contract to the chiropractor, with Ashton demanding a $250,000 kickback. The chiropractor delivered cash to Ashton’s home from May 2013 through early 2015, prosecutors allege. Some payments were made by check to Grimes and Pietrzyk with “antique furniture” in the memo line to conceal the scheme, according to the documents.

Ashton ended the payments in the fall of 2016 when news broke about a federal investigation into corruption in the UAW and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, prosecutors alleged.

The federal charges against Ashton are the latest fallout in a mounting UAW corruption investigation. UAW President Gary Jones was placed on paid leave last weekend after a key ally was charged, and Vice President Rory Gamble was named interim head of the union.

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