Auctioneer accused of theft in Charles County car sales Authorities charge he sold vehicles for more than reported

October 14, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Police arrested the owner of a southern Anne Arundel County auction business that sells cars police seize in drug arrests and charged him yesterday with 56 counts of theft in the theft of $18,800 from Charles County government.

Investigators also took files and computers from the offices of Melvin Edward Richards' Colonial Auction Services Inc. as part of an investigation into whether he stole from Anne Arundel County as well, authorities said.

From 1990 to 1996, Richards was under contract with Charles County to auction seized and surplus county vehicles and to return almost all of the money to the county, keeping 2 1/4 percent as profit, said Detective Sgt. Ed Godwin of the Charles County Sheriff's Office.

But in selling 55 cars and trucks over those years, Richards filed false paperwork claiming that he sold the vehicles to auto dealers for thousands less than he did, Godwin said. He pocketed the difference between the false and real sale prices, Godwin said.

"Taxpayers in Charles County and perhaps elsewhere are being ripped off by this guy, who looks like he's giving them a good deal when he's really not. We are alleging that he is a thief, a white-collar criminal," said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, whose department helped in the investigation.

The Charles County Sheriff's Office began to suspect the auctions in June 1996, when Richards claimed he had sold an Acura Legend with a book value of $6,700 seized in a drug case for $800, said Godwin.

An investigation found that Richards had sold the car for $2,100 more than he reported, according to Charles County Sheriffs Department officials.

State and local police arrested Richards at his offices yesterday morning, and he was led, wearing handcuffs and holding papers to hide his face into Anne Arundel County District Court Commissioner Janice Barnett's office.

Barnett explained that he could be sentenced to 15 years in prison for each of his 24 felony theft charges and 18 months for his 32 misdemeanor charges. She released him on his written promise not to skip his next court date, which has not been set.

The 58-year-old former auto parts salesman from Brandywine earns more than $100,000 a year from the auction business he started in 1984, according to his statements to the commissioner. He has offices in Wayson's Corner and Upper Marlboro.

In addition to his contracts with Charles and Anne Arundel counties, Richards holds auctions for other local governments and charities, according to law enforcement officials.

"He is one of Southern Maryland's leading auctioneers and has been a respected member of the business community for years," his attorney, Timothy Maloney, said outside of court. "There is absolutely no merit to these allegations whatsoever. The records will indicate that he conducted each and every transaction properly."

Richards declined to comment.

The investigation of Richards' auctions of Anne Arundel County vehicles is the most recent development in a more than a year-old disagreement between Weathersbee and County Executive John G. Gary over whether the county's drug asset forfeiture program is mismanaged.

Weathersbee yesterday said he had warned the Gary administration last April that the county should stop doing business with Richards' company.

Jerome W. Klasmeier, the county central services officer who extended Richards' two-year contract by a year in March, yesterday said that he was aware of the investigation but thought it would be unfair to terminate the deal without a conviction.

"I certainly want to review the circumstances being alleged here, but you are innocent until proven guilty," Klasmeier said. "We don't want to have a circumstance where we are sued for breach of contract."

Richards won his contract with the county on April 1, 1996, when he beat out four other auctioneers bidding to sell the county's surplus vehicles by offering a 1 percent margin for his services, Klasmeier said.

Richards' company auctions off about 300 over-the-hill county police cars and public works vehicles a year, plus about 50 cars seized by police in drug cases. He reported to the county that he brought in $354,897 by selling these vehicles to car dealerships in 1997, returning 99 percent of this money to the county, Klasmeier said.

Gary's political foes tried to use yesterday's arrest as evidence his administration has ignored signs of corruption among county workers and contractors.

On Sept. 1, the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office filed theft charges against a county jail clerk after an investigation found $60,000 missing. In February 1997, two county public works employees were convicted of theft for pocketing fees at the county landfill. And in October 1997, a county public works official was charged with stealing $158,000 worth of goods from the county.

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