By Bria Brown

DETROIT (AP) — A former United Auto Workers vice president who took a $250,000 kickback on a watch contract was sentenced Tuesday to 2 1/2 years in prison, the latest punishment in what the government calls “systemic” corruption at the highest ranks of the union.

Joe Ashton, 72, of Ocean View, New Jersey, had hoped for house arrest, noting his wife has multiple sclerosis and needs constant care. But the judge said a prison term was appropriate for a crime that shook the faith of thousands of union members.

“We have to send a message,” U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman said. “We have to let people know that the criminal justice system is not a system that’s only for people on the streets selling drugs and things of that nature. … Sometimes good people do bad things.”

Ashton doesn’t have to report to prison until June because of the risk of the coronavirus, the judge said.

Ashton led the union’s General Motors department until July 2014 and also had a seat on the automaker’s board. He awarded a $3.9 million contract from the UAW-GM training center for thousands of watches that were produced but never given to union members.

In exchange, he got a $250,000 kickback from the vendor, a chiropractor.

“I cannot tell you how ashamed and remorseful I am for what I’ve done,” Ashton said.

Eleven union officials and a late official’s spouse have pleaded guilty since 2017, including former presidents Dennis Williams and Gary Jones. Not all the crimes were connected, revealing the breadth and diversity of the corruption.

The first wave of convictions, which included some Fiat Chrysler employees, involved taking money from a Fiat Chrysler-UAW training center in Detroit. Other crimes involved union dues spent for high-end lodging, boozy meals and golf in California.

“As the government’s prosecution of the UAW has revealed, the culture of corruption within the senior leadership of the UAW is systemic,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Frances Carlson said in a court filing. “The need to transform the unethical, greedy, and self-indulgent behavior characteristic of the UAW leadership is long overdue.”

The current president, Rory Gamble, said the union has adopted reforms in response to the scandal.

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