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Detroit —  Retired United Auto Workers Vice President Joe Ashton pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to crimes connected with a years-long bribery and kickback scandal within the country's largest union.

Ashton entered guilty pleas to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. The government's recommended sentence is 30-37 months. The crimes carry a maximum penalty of up to 20 years and 10 years, respectively. Both have maximum fines up to $250,000.

Sentencing is scheduled for March 3.

Ashton declined to comment on the sentencing as he left federal court in Detroit. His Trenton, New Jersey-based lawyer, Jerome A. Ballarotto, spoke on his behalf.

"(Ashton) has asked me to apologize to all the members at the UAW and the workers at General Motors," Ballarotto said. "Sometimes you find that good people just make bad decisions. We will have at the time of sentencing an explanation of why he did this.

"It was wrong and he should never have done this. This was a bad decision that he made after 50 years of being an outstanding advocate for the workers of America."

Ashton is the 11th person convicted of a crime connected to an ongoing federal investigation into the union, and the highest-ranking UAW officer convicted in the corruption scandal. The investigation has charged 12 other people and implicated the past two presidents in financial corruption schemes and raised the possibility that the union would submit to federal monitoring.

Ashton, who retired from the UAW in 2014, was appointed as the union's representative on the board of General Motors Co.

"The criminal conduct Joe Ashton admitted to is outrageous," GM spokesman Jim Cain said in a statement. "GM was not aware of his illegal activity until it was revealed by the government’s investigation, nor did we know that he continued to benefit from wrongdoing after the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust appointed him to the GM Board — a position he resigned in December 2017."

“The crimes that Joe Ashton has plead guilty to are against everything we stand for as a union, demonstrate his self-interest, and signify his lack of respect for the oath he took to protect the sacred dues money of our UAW brothers and sisters. Under the leadership of Acting President Rory Gamble, the UAW and our Board are focused on reviewing and tightening policies and controls and implementing new measures to restore the full faith and trust of our more than 400,000 members across the country. If we find there has been wrongdoing, we will take all available actions to hold that person accountable.”

The UAW issued a statement after the court appearance, saying: “The crimes that Joe Ashton has plead guilty to are against everything we stand for as a union, demonstrate his self-interest, and signify his lack of respect for the oath he took to protect the sacred dues money of our UAW brothers and sisters. Under the leadership of Acting President Rory Gamble, the UAW and our Board are focused on reviewing and tightening policies and controls and implementing new measures to restore the full faith and trust of our more than 400,000 members across the country. If we find there has been wrongdoing, we will take all available actions to hold that person accountable.”

The plea hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman was scheduled two weeks after Ashton, 71, of Ocean View, N.J., was charged with fraud and money-laundering conspiracies.

He was charged three months after The Detroit News identified him as the unnamed union official accused in a federal criminal complaint of demanding $550,000 in kickbacks and bribes from vendors.

In return, a list of vendors that included Ashton's personal chiropractor received contracts to produce more than $15.8 million worth of union-branded trinkets, including backpacks, jackets and commemorative watches.

The criminal case ends a period of prolonged uncertainty for Ashton, and leaves former UAW presidents Gary Jones and Dennis Williams as two big targets of the federal investigation. They are accused in court documents of participating in a conspiracy that embezzled more than $1.5 million from the union. Neither has been charged.

Ashton's guilty plea comes days after the UAW announced new audits and changes to its financial procedures to "place checks and balances and accounting reforms that prevent financial malfeasance."

Detroit News staff writer Rob Snell contributed

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

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