National Roundup

Pennsylvania

Man gets 5 years for pilgrimage trip scam

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- A suburban Philadelphia man is heading to federal prison for bilking devout customers out of more than $400,000 by promising holy land trips that never happened.

A federal judge ordered 74-year-old John Baird to spend five years in prison for ripping off mostly elderly victims who thought they were buying trips to Christian pilgrimage sites.

Prosecutors say the Elkins Park man ran the scheme from 2004 to 2007 as operator of Christian Pilgrim Tours. He promised trips and even an audience with the Pope only to cancel the tours after getting paid in advance.

Baird blamed legal advisers for his business problems but U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson rejected that excuse, saying Baird preyed on the vulnerable.

Baird was also ordered to repay his victims about $410,000.

California

Prosecutors: San Diego customs fraud topped $10M

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- A customs broker orchestrated a scheme that brought at least $100 million worth of Chinese textiles, Indian cigarettes and other goods to the United States without paying more than $10 million in tariffs and other fees, according to a federal complaint unsealed Wednesday.

Gerardo Chavez, 42, is president of the San Diego Customs Brokers Association, a trade group that represents 45 brokers doing business on California's border with Mexico. The complaint says his companies "facilitated" about $500 million in trade between the United States and other countries over the last five years.

Chavez and two other defendants were taken into custody Wednesday, according to U.S. Immigration and Enforcement. Five other defendants were at-large.

Under the scheme, Chavez and two of his companies named in the complaint -- Tecate Trade Logistics LLC and International Trade Consultants LLC -- allegedly took Asian goods that arrived at the Long Beach port and filed documents that said they were destined for Mexico, exempting them from fees. The complaint says goods were sent to Southern California warehouses and sold in the United States, undercutting competitors.

The defendants "could sell more goods at cheaper prices and for greater profits than their law-abiding competitors, including domestic American manufacturers of these same products," the complaint read.

Investigators discovered more than 90 fraudulent shipments, according to the complaint. In one, a clothing shipment from China was unloaded at a San Diego warehouse in December 2011, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection was falsely told four months later that the merchandise ended up in Mexico.

Chavez, of Spring Valley, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, entry of goods by false statements and obstruction of justice. No one answered the phone at his office.

Indiana

Defendant muzzled by bailiff won't get new trial

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- A convicted bank robber won't get a new trial even though a Lake County judge ordered a bailiff to cover the man's mouth to prevent him from testifying.

The Indiana Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed a Court of Appeals decision that found Kenneth Vaughn should have been granted a mistrial because the bailiff's actions prejudiced the jury.

The Times reports the Gary man was testifying in his own defense when his attorney asked him to discuss robbery charges against him.

Vaughn questioned the strategy and ignored instructions from Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. to stop. The judge then had the bailiff use his hand to silence Vaughn.

The Supreme Court ruled the act didn't deny Vaughn a fair trial.

Vaughn is serving eight years for a Merrillville bank robbery.

Indiana

Turnaround firm sues Gary schools to get records

GARY, Ind. (AP) -- A company appointed by Indiana to run and try to turn around a troubled Gary high school is suing the Gary Community School Corp., demanding that it turn over student records it needs to run the school.

EdisonLearning Inc. senior vice president Todd McIntire told The Times of Munster (http://bit.ly/MK29IQ ) for a story published Wednesday that the lawsuit requires the district to release student records and provide the for-profit firm with services as required by law, including those associated with student transportation and school maintenance.

The Indiana Department of Education appointed the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company last summer to operate Gary's Roosevelt College and Career Academy, one of seven Indiana schools approved last year for private takeovers after poor student scores on standardized tests placed them on continued academic probation. The school had been on probation for six consecutive years.

McIntire said the lawsuit was filed Monday in Marion County Superior Court in Indianapolis because the company is acting on behalf of the state Department of Education.

Gary attorney Robert Lewis, who represents the school district, said his firm received the lawsuit on Tuesday and is still reviewing it.

"I don't know the basis for any lawsuit. We are reviewing it and will respond accordingly," he said.

McIntire said the district provided some student records to EdisonLearning on Wednesday morning, and company officials are auditing those records to determine exactly what it has.

"We're going through them now. Transportation is connected to the records, and we can't develop transportation until we have all of the student records," he said.

McIntire said he meets weekly with the school district's new superintendent, Cheryl Pruitt, and that she has been cooperative.

However, he said the company has had "very little response" from the school district on maintenance issues plaguing the school, including a malfunctioning elevator.

McIntire also said the school's heating and air conditioning fails on a daily basis, and there are a number of areas with no ventilation. He also said the building also experiencing flooding last week following heavy rains.

"We have not been successful in getting the school corporation to address these issues or a date when they will get to them," he said.

Published: Fri, Jul 27, 2012