Oct. 27 2015 05:57 PM

County clerk raised concerns about Ashton last spring

Ingham County officials said they were surprised by revelations that the former chief Information officer and information technology director had been violating the county’s ethics ordinance for years without detection.

An April email from Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum should have set off red flags.

The former employee, Michael Ashton, was fired Thursday after City Pulse launched an investigation into whether Ashton had violated the county’s ethics policy on accepting tickets and other emoluments from contractors.

Concerns were raised by Byrum following two separate meetings at the county. One dealt with recording equipment and technology upgrades for the circuit court; the other was about upgrading the technology and hardware to record and video county commission meetings. The meetings were supposed to be between circuit court staff and county clerk staff and the county’s technology department, represented by Ashton.

But also participating in the meetings was a county contractor, Carousel Industries, which provides video and other services and was representing Palo Alto Networks which was seeking to sell firewall services.

That a contractor was present at these sessions seemed unusual to Byrum.

The meetings were preliminary discussions about technology upgrade needs for both departments, and no request for proposals had yet been developed for the projects.

She followed the meeting with an email raising concerns that there had been no competitive bidding, and no other vendors other than Carousel Industries had been contacted for either project.

“The similarity in these two situations is concerning to me as to why this vendor seems to be so favored,” Byrum wrote in an April 23 email to Brian McGrain, Ingham County Commission chairman, and Commissioner Victor Celentino, chairman of the county services committee. County services oversees county operations, including facilities and information technology issues.

The issue was raised as Byrum was struggling to get various technology issues addressed in her offices.

Two weeks later, staff from the clerk’s office, including Byrum, were prohibited by Controller Tim Dolehanty from meeting with department heads without Dolehanty presence. That decision was made, according to an email to Byrum from Dolehanty, because she had expressed the sentiment that some staff — including Ashton — should be fired for incompetence.

Byrum declined to discuss her concerns with City Pulse.

Dolehanty said Friday he had no reason to believe Ashton had been violating the ethics ordinance and policies, despite acknowledging conversations with the former IT head “both one-on-one and as well as in our department meetings” regarding ethics. He said the county does not routinely monitor email from employees. As such, he said, there was no way county leadership could have had knowledge of the unethical relationship between Ashton and at least two contractors: Information Systems intelligence and Comcast.

As a result of the ethics issues surfacing with Ashton’s tenure, the county plans to review its IT contracts and contractors. Also, it has asked law enforcement officials to investigate Ashton’s actions.

McGrain said Byrum’s email “wouldn’t necessarily” trigger any sort of investigation.

Celentino said his committee took the clerk’s concerns seriously. “We had him (Ashton) come in monthly to tell us what was going on,” Celentino said. “Maybe we should have asked more questions.”

Celentino said he was unaware of any other concerns, particularly as they related to allegations Ashton may have been violating the county’s ethics policy. Rumors of Ashton’s close relationship with contractors have been circulating in the county for months before City Pulse submitted a Freedom of Information Act request. That request prompted county officials to terminate Ashton’s employment for violating the policy. The emails released by the county show Ashton had been accepting gifts such as junkets and tickets to sporting events in Detroit ISI and Comcast . Officials said the FOIA request led directly to Ashton’s termination.

“Some of the gifts — wow,” Celetino said. “I was just surprised he didn’t think he should go to the controller with those. I was shocked.”

McGrain said he was “caught by surprise” in the revelations.

“I have no idea that these junkets, these trips, were happening,” he said.

Dolehanty said he was also not aware of the situation until City Pulse made its request. He said he annually reminded department heads about the county policy on ethics as the holidays neared. However he said that since he began nearly three years ago, there had not been a countywide training for all employees on the ethics ordinance.

“That is a concern,” Celentino said of the lack of training. “We need to take a look at that. That’s definitely going to be part of what we do as review this situation.”

Celentino said county officials need to work harder on enforcing and following the policy.

“We have a policy. It’s got to be a priority for use,” he said. “I’m hoping the cause of adhering to high levels of standards (on ethics) is communicated (to staff). If it’s not, we have to look at how we do it.

This article was corrected to rectify a misspelling of Barb Byrum's name, as well as the name of Victor Celentino.