Family pleads guilty in travel-scam case

A Fairfield family pleaded guilty to felony grand theft after allegedly using the family-owned travel agency to sell plane tickets without ever providing tickets to dozens of alleged victims, most of whom are from the Bay Area, prosecutors said.

Paul Randhawa, 53, his wife, Debbie, 46, and son, Manny, 23, operated M & K Travel Services — which had offices in San Francisco, San Jose and Fairfield — and allegedly swindled more than $90,000 from 36 victims — mostly India-bound customers — in a scheme that lasted two and a half years, San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Max Peltz said.

“In some cases, they would provide a ticket with no ticket for a return and [victims] would be stranded over there,” he said.

Paul Randhawa also pleaded guilty for allegedly forging bank deposit slips totaling $23,000 that indicated he deposited money into a San Francisco wholesaler’s bank account for airline tickets. He then resold the tickets to retail customers, prosecutors said.

As part of the plea deal, Paul Randhawa received a three-year sentence in state prison. Debbie Randhawa received a 30-day jail sentence, while their son will serve 60 days of community service. They were also ordered to pay $114,000 in restitution.

“The degree of the agreed sentencing reflects the level of culpability,” Peltz said, noting that none of the suspects has expressed remorse or regret. The family’s attorney, Edward Swanson, did not return calls for comment.

The three suspects were arrested in November 2005, days before Paul Randhawa was running for Fairfield City Council. After the three posted bail, they allegedly continued to swindle customers up until December 2006, prosecutors say.

Anne Ponugoti and her husband, Prabhaker, of San Francisco, purchased a plane ticket to India through the agency without any problems in 2003. But while planning another trip the following year, they never received tickets after paying more than $1,000, Anne Ponugoti said.

“When we went to their office, they indicated they were having printing problems and that they would FedEx the tickets from their Fairfield office,” she said. “It seemed weird, butwe used them before, so I thought we shouldn’t be suspicious.”

As time wore on, they had problems getting straight answers from the Randhawas, she said. Eventually, they contacted the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

“It became so infuriating,” Anne Ponugoti said. “You were being taken advantage of as you were planning to visit your family and getting excited.”

bfoley@examiner.com


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