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October 12, 2000

Ambulance founder goes on trial

- Embezzlement case question is whether service belong to Smith or Thompsonville
By STACEY SMITH
Record-Eagle staff writer
     
      BEULAH - An ambulance volunteer accused of embezzling $20,000 from the Thompsonville Ambulance Service "did not intend to defraud one red cent" and actually was trying to be a good citizen by forming the ambulance service in the 1970s, his attorney said.
      Howard Smith, 70, went on trial Wednesday on charges of using funds from the ambulance service to pay his phone bill, his cable bill, purchase magazine subscriptions, buy fuel oil for his home and fill his personal vehicle with gasoline.
      Canceled checks and a routine audit performed in 1997 at the request of the Michigan Department of Treasury show Smith wrote checks from the ambulance service account to purchase National Geographic subscriptions, pay his personal utility bills, and make other purchases, said Benzie County prosecutor Tony Cicchelli.
      "A lot of money was being spent by Mr. Smith on Mr. Smith," Cicchelli said.
      But defense attorney Richard Zerafa said Smith, along with a few other emergency medical technicians, formed the ambulance service in the 1970s separate from the Village of Thompsonville. The village charter does not include running an ambulance service among listed village functions, Zerafa said.
      Smith's group raised some money to purchase an ambulance and obtained a bank loan for the balance. Smith signed the loan. Smith also opened a bank account in the name Thompsonville Ambulance Service. Smith's was the only authorized signature on the account, Zerafa said.
      But John Tobin, a certified public accountant with Traverse City based Tobin and Co., said the title for the ambulance is in the village's name and the village pays the insurance on the vehicle.
      Tobin performed the 1997 audit.
      Based on ownership of the ambulance and other factors, such as using the village gasoline pump to fill the ambulance, Tobin said he believes the village owns not only the vehicle but the service.
      "My conclusion in doing the audit is that the village owned it," Tobin said in court.
      The ambulance vehicle and the ambulance service are two separate things, Zerafa said. Smith's home and personal property, though, were commingled with ambulance service business.
      The ambulance service account was occasionally used to pay Smith's phone bill because "his home phone was the ambulance service phone," Zerafa said. "He even made odd runs with patients in his own vehicle."
      Smith's trial is expected to continue today and Friday and as many as three days next week.
      Smith faces up to five years in prison if convicted.