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Ex-UAW boss pleads guilty to corruption, rigged $4 million watch deal

Tresa Baldas, Detroit Free Press on

Published in News & Features

DETROIT -- A retired powerful union boss and onetime General Motors board member pleaded guilty Wednesday to corruption, admitting he rigged a $4 million contract for 58,000 custom-made UAW watches and pocketed $250,000 in kickbacks along the way.

Retired UAW Vice President Joseph Ashton admitted before a federal judge that he crafted the watch deal knowing it was wrong, and secretly betrayed the trust of the autoworkers he was supposed to look out for.

According to court records, Ashton drafted the watch contract, steered it to his contractor friend -- his personal chiropractor -- and demanded a $250,000 kickback in exchange. For the vendor, it was a lucrative opportunity, prosecutors said: The watches cost less than $2.3 million to make, but the contract was for $3.97 million.

Ashton, who was charged last month with wire fraud and money-laundering conspiracies, pleaded guilty to both conspiracy charges before U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman. Under the terms of his plea agreement, he faces 30-37 months in prison, though his attorney said he plans to seek a lighter penalty when Ashton is sentenced in March.

"He's very regretful for what he has done. The UAW was the center of his professional life, and he's very regretful for making this mistake," Ashton's New Jersey attorney, Jerome Ballarotto, said after the plea hearing.

Ashton left the courtroom in silence and declined to talk to reporters. His lawyer said his client is remorseful.

 

"He has asked me to apologize to all the members of the UAW," Ballarotto said. "Joe Ashton has spent 50 years working for the workers of the UAW."

As for why his client did what he did, Ballarotto would only say: "Sometimes in life, you find good people do bad things. ... This was a bad decision."

Ballarotto said Ashton would explain further at sentencing, stressing: "He fully accepts responsibility for what he did."

Federal prosecutors argue in court documents that Ashton used his position to "benefit himself, his family and friends, and outside businesses." He did this with the help of two associates who, they said, collectively took advantage of a training center jointly operated by the UAW and General Motors. Ashton and his two cohorts steered contracts to vendors to make commemorative UAW trinkets with money that came out of the training center.

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