|By Beatriz Valenzuela and Brooke Edwards,
Daily Press, Victorville, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
--A local hotel owner who was reportedly being prepped for a run at City Council turned herself in to authorities Tuesday on charges of theft by fraud. Ashka Patel is now facing possible jail time for allegedly stealing more than three-quarters of a million dollars through an online scam.
Investigators said they received a call from Orbitz.com officials on Nov. 16 reporting fraudulent activity in connection with the Travel Inn Motel on Seventh Street near Victor Street, which is one of at least two hotels Patel owns in the Victor Valley.
An audit by Orbitz revealed $848,000 had been fraudulently paid out to the Travel Inn between February 2009 and November, according to officials with the San Bernardino County Sheriff 's Victorville station.
During the two-month investigation that ensued, officials said they followed a paper trail that led to 26-year-old Patel.
Local authorities served a search warrant at the Travel Inn in December, recovering evidence including bank records. They then tracked down approximately $700,000 still sitting in various bank accounts, all of which Patel had access to.
The money is currently held under search warrant until the case can go to trial, sheriff's officials said, where a judge will decide how much, if any, will be returned to Orbitz.
While the majority of the fraud came through the Travel Inn, officials said a small portion was funneled through another hotel. Patel is also owner of the Days Inn in Victorville.
Patel was led away from Victorville court in handcuffs Tuesday afternoon, with Deputy District Attorney Jason Wilkinson arguing she would be a flight risk with plenty of money and family to help her.
Officials said it doesn't appear any of the other Patel family members were involved in the fraud.
The judge said he was impressed Patel didn't flee during the lengthy investigation, and, with no prior criminal record, he set her bail at $300,000.
D e fe n s e At t o r n ey Brian Watson said they would post bail and that Patel was expected to be out of jail Tuesday evening.
A number of sources have reported that Patel was being prepped for a run at Victorville City Council this fall.
Patel had been serving on the city's C o m m u n i ty S e r v i ce Advisory Committee, but stepped down in December -- the same day long-time planning commissioner Manuel Hinojos announced he was resigning to move to Apple Valley. Hinojos said the city attorney told him that, even though he owns property in Victorville, he can't hold office there unless his full-time residence is in the city.
H i n o j o s wa s Mayor Pro Tem Mike Rothschild's appointee, leaving it to him to find a replacement. And several sources at City Hall told the Daily Press that Rothschild was planning to appoint Patel, bringing her one step closer to the council seat she'd reportedly been eyeing, until someone tipped him off to the ongoing investigation. Instead Rothschild appointed Donny W. Jones Sr. to the position Tuesday night.
Rothschild did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Patel's arrest. Ironically, Patel also lives in Apple Valley. However online searches show she has used the hotel's Seventh Street address as her home address in the past. Patel is due back in Victorville court on March 15.
Staff writer Patrick Thatcher contributed to this report.
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Copyright (c) 2010, Daily Press, Victorville, Calif.
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