Ex-controller of car dealer stole millions to live high life

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Patricia K. Smith, a car dealership accountant, told people that the European and Caribbean vacations, the Super Bowl tickets, the jewelry -- heck, even the front row seats at the Mass with the pope -- were the fruits of a smart stock buy and some hustle as an online travel agent.

And, apparently, they bought it, allowing her to buy luxuries that a head of state would envy.

For six years, Ms. Smith, 57, of Cranberry used her position as controller at Baierl Acura in Pine to siphon off $10.2 million that she and her family and friends used to live the high life. That's the financial equivalent of the disappearance of 342 Acura TSX Sport Wagons.

Some 800 times, Ms. Smith shifted money from the dealership's operating funds to its personnel account, then to an out-of-state financial clearinghouse and finally to her personal accounts.

"She was able to keep this under wraps until early last year by inflating vehicle inventory and manipulating internal records and bank statements," said Lee Baierl, CEO of Baierl Automotive, in a written statement.

When a company executive told her in a July email that he'd found out about the embezzlement and indicated that he would turn her in, Ms. Smith gave herself up to the FBI. She pleaded guilty to wire fraud Tuesday and likely faces five or six years in prison,; forfeiture of four homes, 10 vehicles and jewelry; and repayment of the loss from her future earnings.

But what a run she had.

According to an account provided by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Kaufman before U.S. District Judge Gustave Diamond, Ms. Smith ran up charges of $5.5 million on her American Express card, much of it for travel.

She paid for seven trips to Europe and four to Caribbean islands, blowing $1.8 million on private jet charters and $715,000 on commercial airfare.

Once abroad, she did not skimp. In 2007, she ran up charges of $43,000 at a hotel in Paris. In 2008, in Europe, she paid for $22,000 in limo rentals.

She also bought "experiences," Mr. Kaufman said, some of which she enjoyed herself. Others she gave away.

Among them: a $32,500 luncheon with Food Network star Ina Garten at her barn in East Hampton, N.Y.; a $5,000 Vatican trip including VIP seating at a Mass with the pope; a $2,500 "Phantom of the Opera" package including an escort on stage during the Hannibal sequence; and dinner with Kevin Spacey after his performance of "Richard III."

And take note, Steelers fans: Ms. Smith spent $44,500 in stolen funds on six club-level tickets, with full hospitality, at the Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas, last February.

She bought two houses in Cranberry, one in Avalon and one in Georgia for herself or family members, according to a court filing that listed property she will have to forfeit.

She also bought 10 cars -- only three of them Acuras. The others were Hondas, Dodges, a Cadillac and a Ford Shelby Mustang GT500 convertible.

She bought a mink coat in Alaska, a football autographed by former Steeler Jerome Bettis, gold coins and so much jewelry that it takes six pages to list it in court filings. She paid $5,600 for a first American edition of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," signed by author JK Rowling, Mr. Kaufman said.

Asked whether she did what Mr. Kaufman described, Ms. Smith took a moment to confer with her attorney, Tina Miller.

"Ms. Smith's family was unaware of what she was doing," Ms. Miller then told Judge Diamond. Ms. Smith told the family that she bought stock in an airline company that did very well, and was an online travel agent, Ms. Miller said.

Ms. Smith wept at length after her plea hearing and then left the courtroom through a side door without comment. She is free on unsecured bond until her sentencing May 9.

Mr. Baierl said the company anticipates that the FBI and U.S. attorney's office will recover some of the stolen funds.

The dealership remains financially sound, he said, and has "instituted new oversight checks and balances in our accounting processes at each of our locations to prevent this from occurring again."

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542


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