|Anchorage Daily News, Alaska|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 24, 2004 - Federal grand jury levies charges of wire and credit card fraud.
A federal grand jury has indicted the owner of a bankrupt Anchorage tour company on criminal fraud charges.
Jennifer Christensen, president of Ask Alaska Travel and Tours, is accused of defrauding customers and tourism vendors by improperly using credit cards, according to charging documents released by the U.S. attorney's office in Anchorage on Friday.
She faces 20 counts of wire fraud and one count of credit card fraud, which together carry a maximum penalty of 105 years imprisonment and $5.25 million in fines, the U.S. attorney's office said. Christensen is also being sued by the Alaska attorney general for civil fraud.
Christensen's criminal defense attorney said that he had not yet seen the federal indictment but that it did not come as a surprise.
"We've been in contact with the federal government since 2003 discussing this case. And we look forward to continuing to evaluate the nature of the allegations they're making," John Murtagh said. "In our joint discussions of this case, we've found examples where the allegations believed by the government have been totally inaccurate."
The charges arose from a joint investigation conducted by Anchorage police and the FBI into complaints against Ask Alaska concerning misuse of customer credit cards and not paying tour operators for contracted trips.
When Ask Alaska, a full-service custom-tour company, went bankrupt in the heart of last summer's tourist season, it owed at least $800,000 to hundreds of visitors from all around the world and tourism companies across the state. One of them was Affordable New Car Rental of Anchorage. Yale Metzger, an attorney who won a $29,000 judgment against Christensen on behalf of the car company, said the federal indictment is no shocker.
"In light of the FBI's presence at the bankruptcy hearing, it doesn't come as a surprise that she was indicted," Metzger said, adding that an FBI agent approached him after a creditors' meeting to discuss the Christensen case.
Christensen has denied the accusations of fraud brought by the state in two civil cases last fall, one on behalf of individuals and the other for vendors.
Attorney William D. Artus, who is representing Christensen in her bankruptcy and state fraud cases, said Christensen and her company are two separate entities, so the state's charges against her as an individual should be dropped. Artus has also argued that the bankruptcy should stay the state's lawsuits. Assistant attorney general Julia Coster has asked the judge to allow the litigation to go forward despite the filing.
The federal indictment alleges Christensen defrauded customers and vendors out of $249,343.83 between Aug. 22, 2002, and July 16, 2003.
Specifically, the federal charges claim that on multiple occasions Christensen used credit cards belonging to one customer to pay for trips and itineraries of others.
They also allege that Christensen billed customer credit card accounts for services provided by itinerary vendors, but instead of using the funds to pay the vendors she used them to pay other bills.
The federal charges also allege that Christensen overcharged and double-charged credit card accounts belonging to Ask Alaska clients.
Because the credit card charges were transmitted electronically across state lines, they constitute wire fraud, according to the indictment, which lists 20 specific transactions involving businesses including the Alaska Railroad, Alaska Airlines and sportfishing lodge company Katmailand Inc.
Sonny Petersen, who owns Katmailand, said Ask Alaska signed a form authorizing the use of a credit card to pay for a trip that another client had booked.
"The cops really wanted that," he said.
Since Ask Alaska collapsed, Christensen and her husband sold some assets, including their house, to pay back debts, including what was owed to Katmailand, Petersen said. He surmises that Christensen "got behind the eight ball" on her debts and that's why her company went under.
"They were using next year's money to pay off last year's debts."
The indictment also charges Christensen with one count of credit card fraud, covering the individual customers, although it does not say how many customers allegedly were victimized.
Christensen is scheduled to be arraigned June 1 at the U.S. District Court in Anchorage, said Deborah Smith, first assistant U.S. attorney.
--By Richard Richtmyer and Paula Dobbyn
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(c) 2004, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. ALK,