A former Glendale travel agency owner was found guilty this week of stealing as much as $280,000 from two airlines through a complex ticket refund scheme.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury Monday convicted Anoop Bhatia, 31, of Granada Hills, of two counts of grand theft. He was accused of stealing more than $100,000 from Western Air Lines and an unspecified lesser amount from United Airlines.
Bhatia faces a maximum sentence of five years in state prison, Deputy Dist. Atty. Timothy Browne said. He is scheduled for sentencing Jan. 19.
Fictitious Orders Used
During the 12-day trial before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roberta Ralph, Browne told jurors that Bhatia defrauded the airlines by taking advantage of a complicated system airlines use for selling tickets through travel agencies.
Browne based his case on documents showing that between June and September last year, Bhatia issued travel orders under fictitious names on blank credit coupons extended to him by the airlines, then canceled them for refunds.
"One expects he thought he could fast-dance these things on forever," Browne told the jury during closing arguments last week.
Bhatia issued the travel orders from Argosy Exodus Travel in Glendale, which he bought from a Glendale couple and a La Crescenta couple in May, 1986.
No Payments Deposited
Browne said Bhatia was supposed to deposit payments for the travel orders into an account maintained by the Airline Reporting Corp., an organization owned and operated by domestic airlines to receive payment for travel orders.
But Bhatia did not deposit any payments because there were no real customers, Browne said. Bhatia also failed to report the issuance of the travel orders to Airline Reporting Corp., Browne said.
"It's like the bookkeeper of some business having access to the company checkbook," Browne told the jury. "It was the realization of how this system worked that caused the agent to abuse it in the way he did."
Browne introduced copies of 35 credit coupons issued by Bhatia, each worth between $8,000 and $9,000.
Eight of the coupons billed against United Airlines totaled $72,252. The 27 billed against Western Air Lines totaled more than $235,000. However, Bhatia's attorney, Ron W. Alcorn, showed during the trial that Bhatia did not receive refunds on three of the credit coupons billed to Western Air Lines, worth about $27,000.
Alcorn argued that Airline Reporting Corp. did not intend its credit system to be run "as a tight ship."
Bhatia, he said, was using the blank travel coupons much like a credit account and intended to pay all the money back. The agreement between the airline reporting company and travel agents did not prohibit such action, Alcorn said.
Alcorn said that because of the way the system is set up, it takes the airlines about 2 1/2 months to discover discrepancies in an account. When that happens, the airline bills the travel agent. It was then that Bhatia intended to pay the airlines back, Alcorn said.
Bhatia also faces a civil lawsuit filed by the two couples who sold him Argosy Travel, said their attorney, David Boller.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from Bhatia and the real estate broker who recommended Bhatia as a buyer to them, Boller said.