Ex-GM board member Ashton gets lawyer amid fed corruption probe
Detroit – Retired United Auto Workers Vice President Joe Ashton, who resigned from General Motors Co.’s board amid a federal grand jury investigation of the auto industry, has hired a criminal defense lawyer whose client roster includes mobster kin and corrupt politicians, The Detroit News has learned.
Ashton’s attorney is Jerome Ballarotto of Trenton, N.J.., a former federal prosecutor, Secret Service special agent and crime novelist whose website boasts that he stands between clients and “forces of evil.”
Ashton, 69, of Ocean View, N.J., hired the attorney recently amid a widening federal corruption investigation, first reported by The News, that is probing UAW joint training centers funded by all three Detroit automakers, according to sources familiar with the probe.
Ashton is the second high-ranking auto industry official to hire a criminal defense lawyer amid the widening federal investigation. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV CEO Sergio Marchionne has a criminal defense lawyer and has been questioned by federal investigators about a $4.5 million scandal.
Ballarotto did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
“This does indicate that there is some concern about criminal exposure,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. “How much can you read into it? Whenever your name comes up in connection to an investigation, it’s best to hire experienced counsel.”
Federal investigators have subpoenaed documents in recent weeks from UAW training centers financed by GM and Ford Motor Co., and agents are interested in Ashton and Cindy Estrada, his successor in charge of the union’s GM department, the sources said. Ashton resigned Dec. 13 amid the federal probe and a related internal investigation conducted by the Jones Day law firm for GM.
The probe was spurred by corruption charges filed against a former Fiat Chrysler executive and the wife of a deceased union vice president this summer.
The investigation focuses on whether training funds were misappropriated, and if labor leaders at GM and Ford received money or benefits through their tax-exempt nonprofits — an allegation that emerged this summer involving Fiat Chrysler and General Holiefield, a former UAW vice president who died in 2015, sources said.
Ballarotto’s client roster includes John Bencivengo, the former mayor of Hamilton, N.J., who was convicted of taking $12,400 in bribes five years ago. He also defended the brother of New Jersey mobster John DiGilio in a gun case in 2011, and Florida resident Paul Toppino in a battery case.
“He’s a peacemaker and a deal-maker — that’s how I would put him,” said Toppino, 74, of Key West, who struck a plea deal in 2011. “That seems to be what he’s really good at: arranging pleas.”
Toppino became friends with the lawyer and said he often sees Toppino riding around in a Mazda Miata sports car or riding a motorcycle in Key West, where Ballarotto has a second office.
Toppino also has read Ballarotto’s book “Worthy of Trust and Confidence,” a novel about a fictional Secret Service agent, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a “gorgeous” redhead, and the New Jersey mafia.
“He’s very smooth,” Toppino said. “I’ve got no complaints about him. Thankfully, I don’t need him anymore.”