A prosecutor told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury Wednesday he will prove that a former Glendale travel agency operator embezzled more than $300,000 from two airlines by taking advantage of a complicated system airlines use for selling tickets through travel agencies.
Anoop Bhatia, 31, of Granada Hills stole more than $235,000 from Western Air Lines and more than $70,000 from United Airlines, Deputy Dist. Atty. Timothy Browne said.
During opening arguments in the trial before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roberta Ralph, Browne said Bhatia began defrauding the airlines immediately after buying Argosy Exodus Travel from a Glendale couple and a La Crescenta couple in May of last year.
The trial is expected to last more than two weeks, Browne said.
The fraud was not discovered until Bhatia was audited last September by the Airline Reporting Co., also known as ARC, an organization owned and operated by domestic airlines to accredit travel agencies and to receive payment for travel orders, Browne said.
Faces 5-Year Sentence
Bhatia is charged with two counts of grand theft and faces a maximum sentence of five years if he is found guilty, Browne said.
Between June 1 and Sept. 1 last year, Bhatia created about 30 fictitious travel orders on credit coupons extended to him from the airlines, Browne said.
Bhatia cancelled the orders, worth about $9,000 each, and received cash refunds for them.
Browne told the jury that as an accredited travel agency, Argosy Exodus Travel received a supply of blank credit coupons from ARC.
The system requires an agent, after selling a travel package, to deposit the customer payment to an ARC trust account and to then send the credit coupon to the tour packaging company.
ARC debits the agent's trust account, based on reports filed by the travel agent, and gives the money to the respective airline, Browne said.
Browne told jurors he will prove that Bhatia, using fictitious names, issued travel orders on ARC coupons without depositing payment into the ARC trust account and without filing reports with ARC.
"A trust relationship is developed," Browne said of the ARC credit coupon system in an earlier interview. "It's like giving someone your checkbook and trusting them to use it properly."
The tour packaging company, Browne said, was not expected to confirm that a customer had actually purchased the package since it has no access to bank accounts or to the reports the agency is required to file with ARC.
Bhatia's attorney, Ronald W. Alcorn, said outside the courtroom that he will prove that the arrangement between ARC and a travel agent is much like a credit line and that Bhatia planned to pay back the money he did not deposit into the trust account.
"The airline is attempting to convert what is a civil debt into a crime," Alcorn said.
The two couples who formerly owned Argosy Exodus Travel are seeking unspecified damages in a separate civil suit against Bhatia and the real estate broker who recommended Bhatia as a buyer to them.
The suit claims that Bhatia paid the two couples only a down payment for the business and defaulted on the remaining payment.