Prince George's County Sheriff Don Edward Ansell was acquitted yesterday of charges that he misappropriated nearly $2,000 raised at a sheriff's department banquet in 1976, failed to report the money on his state income tax and lied to a grand jury about it.
Prosecutors had alleged that Ansell spent the money on his children's private school tuition. In announcing his verdict, however, Circuit Court Judge George W. Bowling said prosecutors had failed to prove that the sheriff ever received the funds.
Ansell, 40, who faced a possible prison term and loss of his office had he been convicted, embraced his wife and friends after the verdict and with tears in his eyes, hugged his children. "My family's been put through total torment for the last eleven months," he said outside the courthouse. "All I want to do is put them back together."
Bowling, a soft-spoken judge brought in from Charles County after Prince George's judges disqualified themselves from the case, listed three factors that greatly influenced his verdict. "There was no showing of control" over the banquet funds by Ansell, he said. "There was no showing of unusual spending on the part of the defendant, which is true in most embezzlement cases.
"There were no women, no drinking, no gambling, nothing of a nature to indicate (Ansell) was spending more than he made," Bowling said in an interview after the verdict.
The fact that the Internal Revenue Service had investigated Ansell three years in a row - and cleared him each time also influenced his decision, the judge said.
The way the prosecution pieced together the case, there were about $2,300 in funds left over from the 1976 Deputy of the Year Banquet," held at the Sheraton Lanham hotel. Three days after the banquet, Ansells second in command, Maj. Guy Williams, told a sheriff's department secretary to cash a group of checks from banquet receipts for $1,920. Ansell's own signature appeared on about half the checks and Williams had signed Ansell's name to the other half, according to testimony.
A day later, Ansell's wife paid the Clinton Christian School $2,160 in cash - the balance of the tuition for the three Ansell children.
At the time, the Ansells were required to pay the school a monthly payment of $240, according to assistant state's attorney Robert Bonsib. The state contended that the Ansells had put aside the $240 for that month, but when Ansell learned of the excess banquet funds, he used $1,920 of those funds to help pay off the $2,160 school bill.
The state produce evidence to show that Ansell had not withdrawn any money from his legitimate bank accounts during that period that could have generated the $2,160 in cash.
"Isn't it strange that that figure (the $1,920 needed to pay off the balance of the tuition bill) coincides with the amount of money from the (banquet) checks cashed," Bonsib said during cross-examination.
The sheriff contended that he had several thousand dollars in cash at home at the time, which he kept in a dresser drawer beneath his wife's lingerie. Keeping money at hom was a habit he had picked up from his mother, he testified. Ansell claimed he paid the 1976 tuition with this cash at home.
Ansell's defense was strengthened by the fact that no witnesses testified any money was actually placed in the sheriff's hand. No receipts were kept or given out that could have documented how much ticket money was collected for the banquet, supporting Ansell's contention that he did not know of any leftover funds.
Ansell also maintained that he had delegated the responsibility for the banquet's finances to his assistant, Williams. Williams, termed by prosecutors as Ansell's "bag man," is scheduled to be tried next month on misappropriation and perjury charges in connection with the banquet.
The investigation into Ansell's alleged misuse of the banquet funds began last spring following a story in The Washington Post, which detailed the sheriff's administration and life style.
The story related how Ansell had paid for most of his college education with county money and had used his deputies - on county time - to lay sod in his back yard and pour concrete around his back-yard pool.
During the course of the investigation Ansell handed over to the state's attorney's office literally thousands of records relating to his finance, ranging from his canceled checks, bank deposit slips, and savings accounts statements to his furniture and clothes bills from sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, his receipt from the purchase of a 1975 boat, and the bank note for his back-yard pool.
On at least two occasions in open court, Ansell's lawyer, Victor Houlon, angrily accused prosecutors of using the investigation "dig up . . . mud" against the sheriff because "they had decided they didn't like him anymore." The prosecution had stooped so low as to go around to motels asking if the sheriff had been there with any women," or had received a free room," Houlon said.
The description of the sheriff's life style that both he and his wife gave from the witness stand differed sharply with prosecutor's version. Ansell asserted that he lives on no more than $5 per week, preferring to "brown bag his lunch or eat jail food, rather than eat in restaurants. He said he and his wife go out to dinner generally only two times a year, their anniversary and New Year's. Ansell maintained he sleeps only five to six hours a night because he is studying for a degree in corrections while also continuing his duties as sheriff.
Ansell's wife, who flushed with anger several times while on the witness stand, said her husbadn "lived in the den . . . he stayed in there day in and day out (studying) . . . he'd go to church on Sundays and come home (to study) and be in there sometimes until 3 a.m."
The stocky, raspy voiced sheriff, declined to say whether he would run for reelection as sheriff but said he would continue to attend law school at the University of Maryland-Baltimore and is thinking about practicing law.
"I want that law degree more than anything else in the world."
Houlon said Ansell is considering suing "several individuals" as a result of the prosecution, but he declined to name the individuals.
Concerning his prosecution, Ansell said, "I'm not so sure that a few prayers for the people on the other side wouldn't be as justifiable as throwing rocks."