Don Edward Ansell, the sheriff of Prince George's County, says he realized from the start that there was something awkward about the idea.
Here he was, only recently found innocent of charges that he had misappropriated funds from a 1976 banquet, and now some friends and strangers wanted to involve him in another banquet - this time to pay off the legal fees that grew out of the first one.
"My first reaction was that I don't want any part of this," said the sheriff yesterday, hours before the "Evening with Don Ansell" was to begin at the Port of Italy Inn.
"But there's no way I've got the money to pay $55,000 in legal bills. So I said to 'em: 'Look, do what you want. But I want no money coming directly to me. If you all want to collect the money and send it directly to the lawyers, fine. I don't want to touch one dime. And, please, keep accurate records - right down to the penny.'"
With these cautious instructions, the preparations for another Don Ansell banquet bagan. In a sense, this one was to be different than all the earlier banquets - the "Friends of Don Ansell' testimonial and "Sheriff's Greek Dinner" in 1975 and the "Deputy of the Year" banquet, which eventually led to his indictment, in 1976.
It was to be different because Don Ansell himself, who one former associate calls "the master of county testimonials" was not going to stay out of the prebanquet organizing. "All I'm going to do," he said, "is show up."
There is nothing illegal or improper about an elected public official holding a fund raiser to cover legal fees. Marvin Mandel, the suspended governor of Maryland, benefited from a similar fund raising effort following his indictment on political corruption charges last year.
Despite the sheriff's low profile for his own fund raiser, the network for selling tickets and drumming up support for last night's affair was the same one Ansell has always used. A man named Albert J. Fanelli, who has an unlisted telephone number and whom Ansell says he has never met, is listed as treasurer, but it is Ansell's key aides who have pushed most of the tickets at the county courthouse in Upper Marlboro and around the county.
"I was hit the same way I always am for one of Don's events," said a Hyattsville businessman who asked to remain anonymous because he did not want Ansell "to think I'm another person dumping on him."
"About three weeks ago, I got a call from Maj. Enid Smith (Ansell's assistant). She told me about the fund raiser and said they would be sending me some $25-a-person tickets. A week later I got a letter. Then an off-duty deputy came in one day and dropped off six tickets. I was supposed to sell them, I guess. But, hey, I'm not even going myself."
Smith has been on sick leave for several days. She turned over her ticket-pushing role to Maj. Donald Coss, another top Ansell assistant.
"I sold them to anybody," said Coss. "A lot of deputies bought them, but there was no pressure.
"I've sold them outside the courthouse, too. I took a bunch of them up to Prince George's Community College and sold them to some professors. They donated to the good cause, but said they couldn't or wouldn't come."
Another Ansell assistant said he expected many people in the community to react as the professors did. "I think there are a lot of folks who privately wish Don the best," this assistant said "but are still reluctant, despite his acquittal, to publicly support him."
Ansell has grown accustomed to such hesitancy. "I get used to that before and during the trial," he said. "A lot of my own deputies were like that. Some were afraid to talk to me. Others would come up and say: 'Hey, did you or didn't you [misappropriate nearly $2,000 from the 1976 banquet.'] I'd sit down and talk with them. I'd tell them not to be hesitant."
Ansell still is hesitant to talk with reporters. During a 10-minute interview yesterday, he often referred to what he called "the lies" that have been written about him. It was a Washington Post article in March, 1977, that prompted the state's attorney to investigate Ansell's earlier fund-raiser and his conduct in office.
The sheriff noted that in April, two months after his acquittal, Circuit Court Judge James Taylor expunged from the 1977 grand jury report which accompanied his indictment several negative statements about his department. "It turns out they were all illegal, unsubstantiated lies," Ansell said yesterday.
Despite his recent successes in court, the 40-year-old Ansell's political future is very much in doubt. He said yesterday that he will probably seek a third 4-year term this fall and has a network "of about 360 hard-core poll workers."
What he will probably not have, however, is the support of the county Democratic leadership, which will be forming its slate next month. Ansell ran on the organization slate in 1970 and 1974 and was first encouraged to seek office by lawyer Peter O'Malley, a leader of the country Democratic organization.
"Don Ansell has followed the classic formula for not getting on the slate," said one party leader. "Sure, there is some sentiment that he is innocent and a great guy, but there's more of a feeling that he's an embarrassment. The reasons to keep him off the slate will probably be stronger than the sentiment to show that we won't turn our backs on a guy who's gone through a lot and been acquitted."