It sounds almost like the background plot of the movie Fargo: a car dealership executive looking for an easy financial score arranges the kidnapping of his own wife and daughter of the dealership owner to line his pockets with ransom money. Only this time, in real life it was a dealership executive in suburban Pittsburgh who systematically embezzled more than $10 million to buy such absurd luxuries as a first-edition Harry Potter book, VIP seating for Mass with the Pope and a private dinner with the celebrity chef known as “The Barefoot Contessa.”
Patricia Smith, 58, is getting six-and-half years in prison for what a judge called “mind boggling” behavior. Smith’s stealing from her employer over several years works out to $4,000 a day seven days a week. How did she do it? She was the controller of the dealership, so she was solely in charge of the money and accounts.
According to a report in trade publication Automotive News, Smith’s thievery included: more than 800 transfers of company money to her own accounts; $1.8 million to charter private jets to Europe and the Caribbean; $44,500 for Super Bowl tickets that apparently also netted her dinner with Oscar winning actor Kevin Spacey; four houses, ten vehicles, gold coins, jewelry and a fur. Ironically, the vehicle she kept for herself was a Honda Crosstour, one of Honda’s least popular vehicles.
Smith’s annual salary from the dealership was $53,000. Her deception lasted some six years at the dealership before she was caught. She covered her tracks, according to prosecutors, by putting sold vehicles back into unsold inventory in the dealership’s records, covering revenue shortfalls created by her embezzlement. In the movie Fargo, the dealership’s general manager was nailed because he was silly enough to supply the kidnappers with a car from his own dealership that he couldn’t account for in his inventory.
Smith’s attorney argued that the embezzler suffered from depression in part due to family tragedies early in life, and that she overcompensated by focusing on material things. Her family and friends wrote to the sentencing Judge about how “generous” a person Smith is. No word, though, about how her family imagined she could afford a constant stream of luxury goods for them and her, including buying multiple homes, on her modest annual salary.
“We’re glad that justice has been served and this matter is now behind us,” Lee Baierl, president of Baierl Automotive, the victim, said in a statement. “Despite the amount of funds taken over time, there were no adverse impacts to our daily operations. Our business is doing well, and we have adopted stronger measures to prevent such a crime from ever occurring again.”
The Baierl family is a prominent name around Pittsburgh where the name is on a major building at The University of Pittsburgh and a YMCA. The family is understandably embarrassed over being duped for so long and has only issued prepared statements on the matter.
Car dealerships are susceptible to embezzlement because of the amount of high-priced inventory flying through their lots and computer systems. Experts say that dealership owners, as well as owners of any small to medium-sized business, have to employ more than one person with the power over finances and inventory and have a system of checks to avoid these fiascoes.