The trial of Prince George's County Sheriff Don Edward Ansell began yesterday with a statement from the prosecution that it would prove Ansell used $1,920 in funds raised at a 1976 "Deputy of the Year" banquet to pay the private school tutition for three of his children at the Clinton Christian School.
Assistant State's Attorney Robert Bonsib said the prosecutions case would show there were extra, unaccounted for funds raised at the banquet, that Ansell lied to a county grand jury when he denied the existence of those funds, that Ansell misappropriated the extra money for the personal use of himself and his family, and that the 40-year-old sheriff failed to report the added income on his 1976 tax returns.
Bonsib said that on Sept. 14, 1976, four days after the banquet. Ansell's wife, Frances, paid the private school $1,920 in cash to cover that year's tuition for the three Ansell children. "That was the first time in three years that he (Ansell) paid in cash," said Bonsib. "And it was the first time Ansell had not paid on a monthly ba. [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
The cash used for the lump sum payment, Bonsib argued, was taken from ticket-sale revenues for the banquet.
Defense attorney Victor Houlon declined to make an opening statement before Circuit Court Judge George Bowling, who is hearing the case without a jury at the defenses' request. "I won't at this time tell the state what the defense will be," said Houlon. "But we are going to suggest that it (Ansell's indictment) is based on the baldest speculation."
Ansell, who last October became the first Prince George's public official to be indicted in more than a decade, is standing trial in the same courthouse in which he works as sheriff. Yesterday he was seemingly conducting his official duties during breaks in the first day's proceedings, now and then apparently whispering instructions to a woman deputy in the courtroom. He appeared neither nervous or upset at the opening of the trial.
Before the first of a list of more than 300 subpoenaed witnesses took the stand yesterday Judge Bowling denied a motion by Houlon to dismiss the charges. Houlon had argued among other things that two newspaper articles - including a March 28, 1977, article in The Washington Post that prosecutors said prompted the Ansell investigation - had resulted in prejudicial pretrial publicity and had unduly influenced the grand jury.
Houlon said that he considered his strongest argument for dismissal to be his contention that the indictment named "the wrong victims" in the alleged misappropriation of funds. The indictment named 58 people and corporations bought tickets to the banquet as victims.
"If there was a victim, it was the deputies as a group, for whom the banquet was held," argued Houlon. "They are the only principals in this case. The ticket purchasers are no more the victims than the man on the moon."
Houlon, in a hypothetical argument, said that if Washington Redskins President Edward Bennett Williams "pocketed money someone gave him for a ticket," the Redskins organization, not the ticket-buyer, would be the victim. "The guy who bought the ticket would still get to see the football game," the defense attorney claimed.
Judge Bowling disagreed. "If a man does not use it (the money) for the purpose you gave it to him," he said, "then he's embezzled your money." Judge Bowling added that he would not make a final ruling on Houlon's argument "until hearing all the evidence."
The judge also denied a defense motion to suppress a notebook owned by Ansell's assistant, Major Guy Williams, who was also indicted by the grand jury. The notebook contains an accounting of tickets sold for the banquet. It disappeared months ago, according to Houlon, but resurfaced last week in the possession of the prosecution. The defense argued that the notebook was unlawfully obtained and should not be admitted as evidence.
Prosecutor Bonsib took the stand himself to testify that he received the notebook from a county lawyer representing an unnamed client last April."We did not want him in any way to think we were condoning what he did," Bonsib testified he told the attorney. "We did, however, accept what was provided (the notebook)."
Judge Bowling ruled that the notebook was admissible evidence because "the state did not commit an illegal act to obtain it."
The eight witnesses called by the state yesterday were there primarily to permit the prosecution to introduce certain documents into evidence. Several circuit court employes testified about their perfunctory actvities with the Ansell grand jury and George S. Smith, chief of collections and compliance for the Maryland Income Tax division, testified that Ansell had not listed the alleged extra income under salary or miscellaneous income on his 1976 state income tax return.
Three members of Ansell's department took the stand, including two high-ranking officers who played key roles in the "Deputy of the Year" banquet. Capt. William E. Feeney was in charge of obtaining food and liquor for the affair, and Maj. Enid Smith supplied Ansell and Williams with some $2,700 in "advance" money to pay for banquet arrangements.
Feeney brought a bundle of receipts with him to show what he had done with the cash Ansell had given him for food and refreshments. Feeney testified that the receipts showed he spent "between $2,800 and $2,900" of his banquet budget of $3,500. His testimony was important to the prosecution, which is attempting to disclaim Ansell's contention that he lost money on the banquet.
Smith testified that she was reimbursed for the $2,700 she had given Ansell in "advance" money in two payments within 10 days after the banquet. Under prodding from Bonsib, she also said that she saw Ansell and Williams signing a stack of checks "about an inch high" on the last day she was repaid. She said some, but not all, of those checks were given to her as her reimbursement.