Oct. 27 2015 05:57 PM

Wider probe underway

Ingham County’s information technology director and chief information officer was terminated Thursday, less than 24 hours after City Pulse obtained thousands of pages of emails between him and various contractors.
Those emails reveal that Michael Ashton, 44, a county executive since 2012, had accepted tickets and junkets from contractors to various professional sporting events in Detroit. The practice dates back to at least February 2013.

As a result of the ethics violations, the county is reviewing all IT contracts and contractors, said Tim Dolehanty, controller and administrator for the county.

Dolehanty also informed county officials by email that he is turning over the emails to the “proper law enforcement agency for a follow-up criminal investigation. While I do not necessarily anticipate criminal charges will be forthcoming, it is best that we allow law enforcement experts to draw that conclusion.”
Dolehanty said Tuesday he is turning over the documents to the Mason Police Department.

One contractor linked to Ashton is Information Systems Intelligence, based in Wyoming, Mich. The firm’s contracts with Muskegon County were abruptly terminated in April after a review found that nearly half of $11 million in contracts for computers and telephone systems had not been authorized by the Muskegon County Commission, The Muskegon Chronicle reported. ISI is also being investigated for alleged overcharges.
Ingham County entered into a contract for similar products with ISI. The company has been involved in controversial contracts in Poplar Bluff, Mo., where a criminal investigation is underway, according to newspaper reports.

Commenting on the Ashton firing, Dolehanty said, “There are thresholds that were crossed in this case that we felt rose to the level of requiring termination.” He said he had previously spoken with Ashton about gifts and ethics, but Dolehanty denied any knowledge of the number and extent of the gifts Ashton was accepting.
“He and I have discussed directly what’s accepted and what isn’t both one-on-one and as well as in our department meetings,” Dolehanty said. “Obviously, I wasn’t clear enough.”

Reached late Tuesday afternoon, Ashton declined to comment, but did say he would sit down with City Pulse later this week for a conversation on the situation.

This situation has raised questions about the county’s ethics policy implementation and training as well as how effective the oversight of the county commission has been in the matter. (See related story on this page.)

In all, at least eight instances of Ashton’s accepting junkets or sporting tickets were revealed in the emails. Those eight instances involved two county contractors: ISI and Comcast. The emails also reveal that Ashton often met with various county contractors for lunch. Those contractors picked up the tab.
ISI provides various services from installing new technology to support for that technology. It is unclear what IT support Comcast provides the county.
Accepting the gifts violated the county’s 1995 ethics ordinance. It requires employees and commissioners to decline gifts from those doing business with the county that might look to the casual observer as though the gifts influenced the awarding of county tax dollars and contracts to the vendor. The ordinance was last amended in 1999.

The emails reveal that Ashton accepted an 18-hole golf game at Hawk Hollow from ISI on Sept. 24. He also participated in an August golf outing, along with his deputy, Vince Foess, at ISI’s expense.
Foess, who has been appointed to replace Ashton on an interim basis, was docked eight hours’ vacation pay for attending the golf outing, Dolehenty said.

“As to the August 14 golf event, further investigation revealed Mr. Foess did attend this event at the direction of his supervisor,” Dolehanty wrote in an email to City Pulse Friday. “Mr. Foess lodged a verbal protest to this directive, but did nevertheless attend as directed. I have adjusted Mr. Foess’ accrued vacation leave by eight hours in recognition of his absence from the workplace on August 14.”

In addition, in December 2013, Ashton participated in a junket to Ford’s Field and a Detroit Lions game. That junket included “drinks/partybus/transport,” according to the email from ISI staffer Chad Ordus.
“I am in,” Ashton wrote Ordus in accepting that junket on Oct. 30, 2013.
In addition to those gifts from ISI, Comcast provided various gifts.

That included tickets to the July 1 Tigers game in Detroit. Comcast officials offered Ashton four tickets, and he requested and received a fifth one so his mother could attend the game as well.

In March, he attended a special event with Comcast in Detroit to watch the Red Wings. Foess emailed Ashton about the event noting it would be something he would be interested in attending.

“Just don’t broadcast it was for free,” Ashton cautioned in a Feb. 16 email back to Foess. The email revealed two others — unnamed — also attended the event. Dolehanty said Foess did not attend the Red Wings event.

Ashton also received tickets to at least two other Red Wings games from Comcast officials. In December 2014, he attended a special event at Joe Louis Arena where attendees got free food and the opportunity to watch the Wings practice. In February 2013, Ashton also accepted free tickets from Comcast to a Red Wings game. In that instance, an account executive offered the tickets to Ashton, who initially declined, but asked how much it would cost.

“[The tickets] would be free to you,” the account executive emailed back. Ashton then accepted the tickets, and Comcast overnighted them to his office in Mason.

Dolehanty said the county’s internal investigation was just beginning. “So far our internal investigations have not gone beyond that specific employee,” Dolehanty said.

According to Ashton’s LinkedIn page, he was a state employee for 17 years, serving as manager of the Program Management Office in the Department of Technology Management and Budget for 10 years before joining the county. A Port Huron native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Baker College in Flint. He is married and lives in Dewitt.